Diodes can be designed with a zener voltage. This is similar to avalanche flow. When reversed biased, only leakage current flows through the diode. However, as the voltage is increased, the zener voltage is reached. The diode lets current flow freely through the diode in the direction in which it is normally blocked. The diode is constructed to be able to handle the zener voltage and the resulting current, whereas avalanche voltage burns out a diode. A zener diode can be used as means of dropping voltage or voltage regulation. It can be used to step down circuit voltage for a particular application but only when certain input conditions exist. Zener diodes are constructed to handle a wide range of voltages. [Figure 11-25]
While diodes are very useful in electronic circuits, semiconductors can be used to construct true control valves known as transistors. A transistor is little more than a sandwich of N-type semiconductor material between two pieces of P-type semiconductor material or vice versa. However, a transistor exhibits some remarkable properties and is the building block of all things electronic. [Figure 11-26] As with any union of dissimilar types of semiconductor materials, the junctions of the P- and N- materials in a transistor have depletion areas that create potential hills for the flow of electrical charges.Like a vacuum tube triode, the transistor has three electrodes or terminals, one each for the three layers of semiconductor material. The emitter and the collector are on the outside of the sandwiched semiconductor material. The center material is known as the base. A change in a relatively small amount of voltage applied to the base of the transistor allows a relatively large amount of current to flow from the collector to the emitter. In this way, the transistor acts as a switch with a small input voltage controlling a large amount of current.
If a transistor is put into a simple battery circuit, such as the one shown in Figure 11-27, voltage from the battery (EB) forces free electrons and holes toward the junction between the base and the emitter just as it does in the junction of a semiconductor diode. The emitter-base depletion area becomes narrow as free electrons combine with the holes at the junction. Current (IB) (solid arrows) flows through the junction in the emitter-base battery circuit. At the same time, an emitter-collector circuit is constructed with a battery (EC) of much higher voltage in its circuit. Because of the narrow depletion area at the emitter-base junction, current IC is able to cross the collector base junction, flow through emitter-base junction, and complete the collector-emitter battery circuit (hollow arrows).To some extent, varying the voltage to the base material can increase or decrease the current flow through the transistor as the emitter-base depletion area changes width in response to the base voltage. If base voltage is removed, the emitter base depletion area becomes too wide and all current flow through the transistor ceases.
Current in the transistor circuit illustrated has a relationship as follows: IE = IB + IC. It should be remembered that it is the voltage applied to the base that turns the collector-emitter transistor current on or off.
Controlling a large amount of current flow with a small independent input voltage is very useful when building electronic circuits. Transistors are the building blocks from which all electronic devices are made, including Boolean gates that are used to create micro processor chips. As production techniques have developed, the size of reliable transistors has shrunk. Now, hundreds of millions and even billions of transistors may be used to construct a single chip such as the one that powers your computer and various avionic devices.
Silicon Controlled Rectifiers
Combination of semiconductor materials is not limited to a two-type, three-layer sandwich transistor. By creating a fourlayer sandwich of alternating types of semiconductor material (i.e., PNPN or NPNP), a slightly different semiconductor diode is created. As is the case in a two-layer diode, circuit current is either blocked or permitted to flow through the diode in a single direction.
Within a four-layer diode, sometimes known as a Shockley diode, there are three junctions. The behavior of the junctions and the entire four-layer diode can be understood by considering it to be two interconnected three-layer transistors. [Figure 11-28] Transistor behavior includes no current flow until the base material receives an applied voltage to narrow the depletion area at the base-emitter junction. The base materials in the four-layer diode transistor model receive charge from the other transistor’s collector. With no other means of reducing any of the depletion areas at the junctions, it appears that current does not flow in either direction in this device. However, if a large voltage is applied to forward bias the anode or cathode, at some point the ability to block flow breaks down. Current flows through whichever transistor is charged. Collector current then charges the base of the other transistor and current flows through the entire device.Some caveats are necessary with this explanation. The transistors that comprise this four-layer diode must be constructed of material similar to that described in a zener diode. That is, it must be able to endure the current flow without burning out. In this case, the voltage that causes the diode to conduct is known as breakover voltage rather than breakdown voltage. Additionally, this diode has the unique characteristic of allowing current flow to continue until the applied voltage is reduced significantly, in most cases, until it is reduced to zero. In AC circuits, this would occur when the AC cycles.
While the four-layer, Shockley diode is useful as a switching device, a slight modification to its design creates a silicon controlled rectifier (SCR). To construct a SCR, an additional terminal known as a gate is added. It provides more control and utility. In the four-layer semiconductor construction, there are always two junctions forward biased and one junction reversed biased. The added terminal allows the momentary application of voltage to the reversed biased junction. All three junctions then become forward biased and current at the anode flows through the device. Once voltage is applied to the gate, the SCR become latched or locked on. Current continues to flow through it until the level drops off significantly, usually to zero. Then, another applied voltage through the gate is needed to reactivate the current flow. [Figures 11-29 and 11-30]
SCRs are often used in high voltage situations, such as power switching, phase controls, battery chargers, and inverter circuits. They can be used to produce variable DC voltages for motors and are found in welding power supplies. Often, lighting dimmer systems use SCRs to reduce the average voltage applied to the lights by only allowing current flow during part of the AC cycle. This is controlled by controlling the pulses to the SCR gate and eliminating the massive heat dissipation caused when using resistors to reduce voltage. Figure 11-31 graphically depicts the timing of the gate pulse that limits full cycle voltage to the load. By controlling the phase during which time the SCR is latched, a reduced average voltage is applied.Triacs
SCRs are limited to allowing current flow in one direction only. In AC circuitry, this means only half of the voltage cycle can be used and controlled. To access the voltage in the reverse cycle from an AC power source, a triac can be used. A triac is also a four-layer semiconductor device. It differs from an SCR in that it allows current flow in both directions. A triac has a gate that works the same way as in a SCR; however, a positive or negative pulse to the gate triggers current flow in a triac. The pulse polarity determines the direction of the current flow through the device.
Figure 11-32 illustrates a triac and shows a triac in a simple circuit. It can be triggered with a pulse of either polarity and remains latched until the voltage declines, such as when the AC cycles. Then, it needs to be triggered again. In many ways, the triac acts as though it is two SCRs connected side by side only in opposite directions. Like an SCR, the timing of gate pulses determines the amount of the total voltage that is allowed to pass. The output waveform if triggered at 90° is shown in Figure 11-32. Because a triac allows current to flow in both directions, the reverse cycle of AC voltage can also be used and controlled.When used in actual circuits, triacs do not always maintain the same phase firing point in reverse as they do when fired with a positive pulse. This problem can be regulated somewhat through the use of a capacitor and a diac in the gate circuit. However, as a result, where precise control is required, two SCRs in reverse of each other are often used instead of the triac. Triacs do perform well in lower voltage circuits. Figure 11-33 illustrates the semiconductor layering in a triac.
NOTE: The four layers of N- and P-type materials are not uniform as they were in previously described semiconductor devices. None the less, gate pulses affect the depletion areas at the junctions of the materials in the same way allowing current to flow when the areas are narrowed.