The ebook FEEE - Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering and Electronics is based on material originally written by T.R. Kuphaldt and various co-authors. For more information please read the copyright pages.


A diode is an electrical device allowing current to move through it in one direction with far greater ease than in the other. The most common type of diode in modern circuit design is the semiconductor diode, although other diode technologies exist. Semiconductor diodes are symbolized in schematic diagrams as such:

When placed in a simple battery-lamp circuit, the diode will either allow or prevent current through the lamp, depending on the polarity of the applied voltage:

When the polarity of the battery is such that electrons are allowed to flow through the diode, the diode is said to be forward-biased. Conversely, when the battery is "backward" and the diode blocks current, the diode is said to be reverse-biased. A diode may be thought of as a kind of switch: "closed" when forward-biased and "open" when reverse-biased.

Oddly enough, the direction of the diode symbol's "arrowhead" points against the direction of electron flow. This is because the diode symbol was invented by engineers, who predominantly use conventional flow notation in their schematics, showing current as a flow of charge from the positive (+) side of the voltage source to the negative (-). This convention holds true for all semiconductor symbols possessing "arrowheads:" the arrow points in the permitted direction of conventional flow, and against the permitted direction of electron flow.

Diode behavior is analogous to the behavior of a hydraulic device called a check valve. A check valve allows fluid flow through it in one direction only:

Check valves are essentially pressure-operated devices: they open and allow flow if the pressure across them is of the correct "polarity" to open the gate (in the analogy shown, greater fluid pressure on the right than on the left). If the pressure is of the opposite "polarity," the pressure difference across the check valve will close and hold the gate so that no flow occurs.

Like check valves, diodes are essentially "pressure-" operated (voltage-operated) devices. The essential difference between forward-bias and reverse-bias is the polarity of the voltage dropped across the diode. Let's take a closer look at the simple battery-diode-lamp circuit shown earlier, this time investigating voltage drops across the various components:

When the diode is forward-biased and conducting current, there is a small voltage dropped across it, leaving most of the battery voltage dropped across the lamp. When the battery's polarity is reversed and the diode becomes reverse-biased, it drops all of the battery's voltage and leaves none for the lamp. If we consider the diode to be a sort of self-actuating switch (closed in the forward-bias mode and open in the reverse-bias mode), this behavior makes sense. The most substantial difference here is that the diode drops a lot more voltage when conducting than the average mechanical switch (0.7 volts versus tens of millivolts).

Last Update: 2010-11-19