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The Zener Diode

The main feature of the zener diode is its ability to operate in the reverse breakdown mode without sustaining permanent damage. In addition, during manufacture, the precise breakdown voltage (zener voltage) for a given diode can be predetermined. For this reason they are also known as voltage reference diodes. The major application for these devices is to limit or stabilise a voltage between two points in a circuit. Diodes are available with zener voltages from 2.6 V to about 200 V. The circuit symbol for a zener diode is shown in Fig 16.

Fig 16

The forward characteristic for a zener diode will be the same as for any other p-n junction diode, and also, since the device is always used in its reverse bias mode, only its reverse characteristic need be considered. Such a characteristic is shown in Fig 17.

Fig 17

In Fig 17, VZ represents the zener breakdown voltage, and if it were an ideal device, this p.d. across it would remain constant, regardless of the value of current, IZ, flowing through it. In practice the graph will have a fairly steep slope as shown. The inverse of the slope of the graph is defined as the diode slope resistance, rZ, as follows

Typical values for rZ range from 0.5 Ω to about 150Ω . For satisfactory operation the current through the diode must be at least equal to IZ(min) . Due to the diode slope resistance, the p.d. across the diode will vary by a small amount from the ideal of VZ volt as the diode current changes. For example, if rZ = 1Ω and VZ = - 15 V, a change in diode current of 30 mA

would cause only a 0.02% change in the diode p.d. This figure may be verified by applying equation. The value of current that may be allowed to flow through the device must be limited so as not to exceed the diode power rating. This power rating is always quoted by the manufacturer, and zener diodes are available with power ratings up to about 75 W. Consider now the application of a zener diode to provide simple voltage stabilisation to a load. A circuit is shown in Fig 18.

Fig 18 In order for satisfactory operation the supply voltage, VS, needs to be considerably greater than the voltage required at the load. The purpose of the series resistor RS is to limit the maximum diode current to a safe value, bearing in mind the diode’s power rating. Considering Fig 18, the diode current will be at its maximum when the load is disconnected, because under this condition all of the current from the supply will flow through the diode, i.e. IZ =IS. When the load is connected it will draw a current IL, and since IZ= IS – IL , then under this condition the diode current will decrease, since it must divert current to the load. The output voltage, however, will remain virtually unchanged. Knowing the diode power rating a suitable value for RS may be calculated as shown in the following worked example. This example also demonstrates the stabilising action of the circuit.