Video: The Lowly Diode — Umpteen Functions with Only Two Pins

 

The lowly diode, a device with only two leads, can nonetheless do many things. Diodes can detect, rectify, suppress, emit light, detect light, change capacitance, emit microwaves and more. This wide range of use means diodes are included in almost every design and it’s well worth learning more about the inner workings of all kinds of diodes.

My introduction to diodes started like many of my generation with a homemade crystal radio set. My first diode was a piece of pencil graphite in contact with an old fashion safety razor with the joint of the two dissimilar materials — graphite and steel — creating the diode. In this configuration the diode is said to be “detecting” which is the act of turning a weak radio signal into a weak audio signal. At least in my home town of Marion Indiana, one radio station was stronger than the other so that I didn’t have to listen to two stations at once.

Germanium Glass Diode

The venerable 1N34A Germanium Signal Diode.

I eventually learned about “real” diodes and the 1N34A Germanium diode was my “goto” diode into my teens. Nowadays looking into a modern version of the 1N34A you can still see the semblance of the old “cat’s whisker” by looking carefully into the diode.

A quick and somewhat inaccurate semblance of the way a diode works can be demonstrated with marbles and jacks representing negative electrons and positive “holes”. Holes are basically an atom missing an electron due to the combination of elements, a process known as doping. Join me after the break for the explanation.

Demonstrating a PN Junction with marbles and Jacks.

Demonstrating a PN Junction with marbles and Jacks.

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Accidental LED fabrication

[Grenadier] had a piece of silicon carbide sitting around that he planned to use when making a primitive diode called a Cat’sWhisker Diode. While probing he noticed that one of the crystals threw off a bit of light. He popped it off and used JB Weld to attach it to a brass plate. The peculiar thing is that it generates light when power is run through it both forward and reverse biased. So what’s going on here? According to an informed discussion on the phenomenon there’s actually a pair of diodes in series but with their polarity reversed.