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.

Tunnel Diodes

Tunnel diodes exploit a strange quantum phenomenon called resonant tunneling to provide interesting forward-bias characteristics. When a small forward-bias voltage is applied across a tunnel diode, it begins to conduct current. As the voltage is increased, the current increases and reaches a peak value called the peak current (IP). If the voltage is increased a little more, the current actually begins to decrease until it reaches a low point called the valley current (IV). If the voltage is increased further yet, the current begins to increase again, this time without decreasing into another "valley." Both the schematic symbol and a current/voltage plot for the tunnel diode are shown in the following illustration:

The forward voltages necessary to drive a tunnel diode to its peak and valley currents are known as peak voltage (VP) and valley voltage (VV), respectively. The region on the graph where current is decreasing while applied voltage is increasing (between VP and VV on the horizontal scale) is known as the region of negative resistance.

Tunnel diodes, also known as Esaki diodes in honor of their Japanese inventor Leo Esaki, are able to transition between peak and valley current levels very quickly, "switching" between high and low states of conduction much faster than even Schottky diodes. Tunnel diode characteristics are also relatively unaffected by changes in temperature.

Unfortunately, tunnel diodes are not good rectifiers, as they have relatively high "leakage" current when reverse-biased. Consequently, they find application only in special circuits where their unique tunnel effect has value. In order to exploit the tunnel effect, these diodes are maintained at a bias voltage somewhere between the peak and valley voltage levels, always in a forward-biased polarity (anode positive, and cathode negative).

Perhaps the most common application of a tunnel diode is in simple high-frequency oscillator circuits, where they allow a DC voltage source to contribute power to an LC "tank" circuit, the diode conducting when the voltage across it reaches the peak (tunnel) level and effectively insulating at all other voltages.

Last Update: 2010-11-19