You are on page 1of 11

Photodiode Detector Characteristics

Gabrielle Baxter
School of Physics and Astronomy
University of Manchester
Second Year Laboratory Report
March 2014
This experiment was performed in collaboration with Archie Skone

A photodiode amplifier circuit was built and its limitations of speed
and sensitivity were studied using light from an LED of various
frequencies, driven by a fast pulsed generator. The linearity of the
photodiode was also tested using the Law of Malus and a polarised
diode laser. The output of the photodiode circuit was compared to
that of a fast photodiode and limitations were found due to slew rate
and the circuitry of the photodiode amplifier.

1. Introduction
The experiment aimed to study the characteristics of photodiode
amplifiers, detectors that convert light energy into electric current,
using a polarised diode laser and a pulse driven light emitting diode
(LED). By illuminating the diode with light of various frequencies and
observing the output on a Cathode Ray Oscilloscope (CRO), both a
photodiode amplifier circuit built in the experiment and a fast
photodiode could be studied and their characteristics compared. The
linearity of the photodiode amplifier was also tested using a dichoric
polariser and the Law of Malus.
Photodiodes are essential in optical fibre communication systems [1]
and must operate with high sensitivity, minimal noise and especially
high response speed which must be comparable to the rate of data
transmission. The photodetectors in this experiment were used close
to their limits of speed and sensitivity to find their limitations.

2. Theory
2.1 The photodiode
A photodiode works by converting light energy into a photocurrent via
semiconductor material in the photodiode. The photodiode consists
of a junction of n-type and p-type materials; when a photon with
sufficient energy strikes the photodiode, it excites an electron and a
free electron and positively charged hole pair are produced [2].

Figure 1 A diagram showing a p-n junction and the depletion region


If the excitation occurs in the depletion layer around the junction

between p type and n type materials in the photodiode, as seen in
figure 1, the electrons are swept across the junction due to the
potential difference across the depletion layer. The hole-electron pair
must be within a diffusion length of the depletion region to be
affected by the electric field of the region or else they recombine.
As the photodiode is operating in photo-conductive mode, the diode is
reverse biased; the cathode is positive compared to the anode and
therefore positively charged holes move towards the anode and
negative electrons move towards the cathode. Photodiodes are often
reverse biased as this reduces the transit time of the electrons and
holes for a faster response and reduces the capacitance of the diode
[1]. Although reverse bias is a faster mode of operation, it leads to
more electronic noise and an increase in dark current, the small
current that flows due to the random generation of electron-hole pairs
in the depletion region [2].
The photodiode used in this experiment was a silicon photodiode with
a capacitance of 270 pF and an active area of 25mm2.
2.2 The Photodiode Amplifier Configuration

Figure 2 The configuration of the photodiode amplifier circuit


The configuration of the photodiode amplifier circuit is shown in figure

2. The photocurrent, IPD, from the photodiode passes through R1 and
converted to voltage by Ohms Law [5]
V R 1=I PD R1

In order for the output to be measurable on the CRO, the output of
the photodiode must be amplified by an operational amplifier [2]; in
this experiment an OP177 operational amplifier was used. The
amplifier is non-inverting, and therefore the output voltage of the
amplifier is directly proportional to the voltage across R1 by [6]
R3 R1

( )

V out = 1+

and the gain of the circuit can be controlled through the experiment
by Rf.
2.3 Law of Malus
The linearity of the photodiode can be tested using the law of malus


I out =I 0 cos 2
where I0 is the maximum intensity of light in volts, and is the
relative angle between the polarisation vector of the laser beam and
the polariser. The output Iout varies between a maximum, when the
polariser axis aligns with the polarisation of the laser, and a minimum,
when the polariser crosses with the direction of the laser polarisation.

3. Method
3.1 Constructing the photodiode circuit and LED board
After values for resistors were selected as in table 1, the circuit in
figure 2 was built and soldered onto a printed copper circuit board.

100k 1%
1k 1%
1k 1%

Table 1 A table displaying the various resistors used in the photodiode

amplifier circuit

The 12V inputs of the amplifier were bypassed with 2.2F tantalum
resistors, chosen for their high frequency response. A 12V power
supply was connected to the positive and negative terminals of the
circuit, and the circuit was grounded appropriately. Output voltages of
the circuit were checked with a multi-meter before any experiments
were carried out, the circuit mounted onto the optical rail and the
photodiode placed in PVC housing to shield it from extraneous light.

3.2 Testing the photodiode using a laser

Figure 3 A diagram showing the set up for the Law of Malus

The sensitivity and linearity of the photodiode amplifier circuit were
tested using a polarised diode laser. The laser was mounted onto an
optical rail, aligned so that it travelled co-linearly with the optical rail
and left to warm up for 30 minutes to ensure a stable output for the
duration of the experiment. The photodiode amplifier circuit was
mounted at a distance of about 30cm from the laser, and the dichoric
polariser placed in between the photodiode and the laser as shown in
figure 3.
The polariser was first set to =45 and the maximum intensity set
using the potentiometer to a 2 VDC output observed on the CRO. The
polariser was then set back to =0 and the output voltage on the
CRO was recorded. Readings were taken at intervals of 51 and the
polariser rotated through a full 360. The readings were then repeated
at an initial maximum intensity of 8 VDC.
3.3 Measuring the LED output using the fast photodiode

Figure 4 A diagram showing the set up for the fast photodiode circuit

The fast photodiode circuit, LED circuit and a short focal lens were
mounted onto the optical rail as shown in figure 4, and the light from
the LED focused onto the active area of the fast photodiode using the
lens. The LED was connected to a pulse generator using a 50 BNC
cable and the fast photodiode connected to the CRO using a T
junction with a 50 terminator to match the impedance of the BNC
The pulse rate of the LED was set to a 5Hz square wave using the
pulse generator and the shape of the output waveform on the CRO
was noted. The pulse rate was then increased to 50Hz, 500Hz, 1kHz,
5kHz, 10kHz, 50kHz, 100kHz and 500kHz and the observations of the
output waveform were repeated.
3.4 Measuring the LED output using the photodiode
As with the fast photodiode, the photodiode amplifier circuit was
mounted on the optical rail at a distance of 200mm from the LED in a
similar fashion to figure 4, the power supply connected across the
positive and negative terminals, and the output connected to the
CRO. The light from the LED was aligned with the active area of the
photodiode and the pulse rate of the LED set to a 5Hz square wave as
The gain of the circuit was set so that an output of 2V was observed
on the CRO and the pulse shape noted. The gain was then increased
to 5V and 10V and the observations repeated. The frequency of the
LED was increased to 50Hz, 500Hz, 1kHz, 5kHz, 10kHz, 50kHz,
100kHz and 500kHz and the output shape on the CRO noted at each

4. Results
4.1 Law of Malus results

Fig 5 A plot of output voltage against angle in radians. The output voltage
was set at a maximum of 2V at 45

Figure 6 A plot of output voltage against angle in radians. The output

voltage was set at a maximum of 8V at 45

After removing anomalous results, the data at 8V appears to hold

better than the data at 2V. The law of malus still holds at 2V but the
changes in voltage were smaller compared to those at 8V which
meant that the results appeared to fit better to the theoretical results.
The flat points at the bottom of the curve are from where the data
does not fit the theoretical curve as the incident light intensity
dropped below background light levels, and the photodiode could not
get readings below background light levels.
4.2 LED output using the fast photodiode

Figure 7 Output waveforms from the fast photodiode at 50Hz, 10kHz and

At low frequencies, the output of the fast photodiode was square with
no noticeable response time, however at higher frequencies the
response was evident from the curved response as shown in figure 7.
4.3 LED output using the photodiode amplifier circuit

Figure 8 Output waveforms from the photodiode amplifier circuit at 50Hz,

10kHz and 100kHz at a gain of 2V

Figure 9 Output waveforms from the photodiode amplifier circuit at 50Hz,

10kHz and 100kHz at a gain of 10V

At low frequencies the output waveform was square, with increasing

curvature at higher frequencies for 2V whereas there was a more
linear, triangular output for 5V and 10V, tending towards a sinusoidal
shape at around 100kHz. At 500kHz the output signal was just noise
with a noticeable wave packet and at higher frequencies it was not
possible to achieve output voltages of over 2V.

5. Discussion
5.1 The response of the photodiodes
The curved response of the photodiode amplifier can be attributed to
the use of capacitors in the circuit; 2.2F capacitors were chosen for
their high frequency response but the curved edges on the waveforms
are due to the exponential shape of charging and discharging of the

The slew rate (the maximum rate of change of output voltage per unit
time) of the operational amplifier also gave rise to non-linear effects.
At high frequencies the limitations due to the slew rate were more
evident and higher gains were harder to achieve, and therefore this
could be used to determine the maximum frequency at which the LED
could be driven without a distorted output. The slew rate for the
OP177 amplifier was around 0.2Vs-1. This could also lead to a delay
in response as seen in figure 10 as the output would have a finite

Figure 10 The effect of slew rate on a square wave, where the solid line is
the desired output and the dashed line is the actual output

5.2 Comparison of the two photodiodes

When comparing the output waveforms of the fast photodiode and
the photodiode amplifier circuit it is evident that the slew rate of the
fast photodiode must be greater than the photodiode circuit as it
showed a more linear response and less of a response time.
Differences in response of the photodiodes can also be attributed to
their circuitry and the limitations stemming from the components
5.3 Errors
5.3.1 Errors in the Law of Malus experiment
From the results of the Law of Malus experiment it is evident that the
polariser was offset by 1-5, leading to a shift in the measurements.
The scale on the polariser was very thin and hard to read without
parallax errors, leading to an uncertainty in angle of 1. Readings of
output voltage of the CRO also had an uncertainty of 1mV.
5.3.2 Errors due to background light

The background light in the room in which the experiment was

conducted in lead to interference in measurements, and an inability to
achieve outputs of below about 500mV. The background lights were
fluorescent, generating a roughly 100Hz waveform on the CRO. This
due to the alternating nature of mains current as although mains
voltage operates at 50Hz, the electrons in the fluorescent lights
oscillate back and forth in the tube and are excited twice in one cycle,
leading to a photocurrent of twice the frequency of the mains.
Furthermore the change of background light as the day progressed
would have affected measurements, and results were taken over a
short period of time to minimise this effect. In future an improvement
on experimental technique would be to take readings in a dark room
or with minimal background light.
5.4 Limitations
5.4.1 Limitations at high frequencies
Increasing the frequency of the LED pulse reduced the gain of the
circuit and it was harder to achieve higher output voltages. To
improve this, a higher resistance could be used for R1 which would
yield a higher input voltage due to the photocurrent, as the input
voltage is directly proportional to the resistance of R1 as in equation
5.4.2 Limitations of the photodiode
The range of the wavelengths able to be detected by the photodiode
is 190-1100nm for a silicon photodiode [8] and therefore the
photodiode cannot be used for all applications. Experiments could be
carried out to study the response of the photodiode amplifier circuit
with light of varying wavelength.
The depletion region of the photodiode can also have effects on its
operation; the depletion region can be kept thin for the photodiode to
operate at a higher speed by reducing transmit time [1]. However to
increase the efficiency of the photodiode and the number of electronhole pairs that are generated per incident photon, the depletion
region must be thicker for more light to be absorbed. There is
therefore a trade-off between speed and efficiency [1]. The reverse
bias of the diode also leads to an increase in signal noise and dark

[1] Sze, S. M. Physics of Semiconductor Devices. New York: Wiley,

[2] Graeme, Jerald G. Photodiode Amplifiers: Op Amp Solutions.

Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 1996.
[3] P-n Junction in a Photodiode. Digital image. Electronics Tutorials.
[4] Murray. A.J. 1999. Photodiode Detector Characteristics, 2nd yr lab
script, Physics Department, University of Manchester
[5] Grant, I. S., and W. R. Phillips. Electromagnetism. London: Wiley,
[6] Gingrich D.M. 1999. Electronics Lecture Notes, Department of
Physics, Univeristy of Alberta
[7] Hecht, Eugene. Optics. Hecht. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998.
[8] Held, Gilbert. Introduction to Light Emitting Diode Technology and
Applications. Boca Raton: CRC, 2009.