Page three or four of every ‘beginners guide to electronics’ covers a diode as, “a component that only allows current to flow in one direction.” This is true; a diode only allows current to flow in one direction. However, like any depth of knowledge, the dialectic of diodes quickly turns to a series of, ‘but..’ and ‘however…’ statements.
A zener diode is like a normal silicon diode, where a forward biased diode will pass current with a ~1 volt drop. When a zener diode is reversed biased, there’s a different voltage drop, annotated as Vz on the datasheet. When reversed biased, current cannot flow across the diode unless the voltage is above Vz. This is what makes zeners useful for a bunch of applications.
[Afroman] goes over a few of the most useful applications of zeners, including a diode clamping circuit. This circuit will clamp the voltage to a maximum of Vz, helpful when you’re feeding a signal into an analog input. This voltage clamping circuit can be used in some interesting applications. If you feed a sine wave or other signal though the circuit, you can clip the signal.
Zeners can also be used as a very crude, low current, low accuracy power supply. If you’re looking for a voltage regulator for a microcontroller that’s impossibly easy and you’re all out of 7805s, pick up a zener. It’s not the basis of a good power supply, but it does work.
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.
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.
Powering your gadgets generally seems like a necessary evil. To help with this [Felipe La Rotta] made a really nice bench power supply using a PC power supply and a LM317 adjustable voltage regulator. PC power supplies are an example of a switched power supply(more on that later). The LM317 is a type of linear voltage regulator that allows for adjusting the output voltage by varying some resistors. Whats the best way to power your circuits? well that depends…
[Frank Zhao] put together a USB business card. It’s even got the instructions printed right on the silk screen of the PCB explaining how it should be used. He based the design around an AVR ATtiny85 microcontroller. It runs the V-USB package that handles USB identification and communication protocols. The rest of the hardware is pretty standard, the uC draws power from the 5V USB rail, with a couple of 3.6V Zener diodes to drop the two data lines down to the proper level.
Once plugged in it waits until it detects three caps lock keypresses in a row, then spews a string of its own keypresses that type out [Frank’s] contact information in a text editor window (video after the break). It’s not as reusable as the mass storage business card because [Frank] didn’t breakout the pins on controller. But we still enjoy seeing business cards that make you stand out.