Active Discussion About Passive Components

People talk about active and passive components like they are two distinct classes of electronic parts. When sourcing components on a BOM, you have the passives, which are the little things that are cheaper than a dime a dozen, and then the rest that make up the bulk of the cost. Diodes and transistors definitely fall into the cheap little things category, but aren’t necessarily passive components, so what IS the difference?

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A Lesson On Zener Regulators

For the longest time, Zener diode regulators have been one of those circuits that have been widely shared and highly misunderstood. First timers have tried to use it to power up their experiments and wondered why things did not go as planned. [James Lewis] has put up a worth tutorial on the subject titled, “Zener Diode makes for a Lousy Regulator”  that clarifies the misconceptions behind using the device.

[James Lewis] does an experiment with a regulator circuit with an ESP8266 after a short introduction to Zener diodes themselves. For the uninitiated, the Zener diode can operate in the reverse bias safely and can do so at a particular voltage. This allows for the voltage across the device to be a fixed value.

This, however, depends on the current flowing through the circuit which in turn relies on the load. The circuit will work as expected for loads the draw a small amount of current. This makes it suitable for generating reference voltages for microcontrollers and such.

To make a Zener into a “proper” voltage regulator, you just need to buffer the output with an amplifier of some kind. A single transistor is the bare minimum, but actually can work pretty well. You might also add a capacitor in parallel with the Zener to smooth out some of its noise.

Zener diodes are wonderful little devices and write-ups like these are indispensable for beginners and should be shared more often like the Zener and Schottky Tutorial and Diodes as a Switch.


A Diode by Any Other Name

As active devices go, it doesn’t get much simpler than a diode. Two terminals. Current flows in one direction and not in the other. Simple, right? Well, then there are examples with useful side effects like light emitting diodes. [GreatScott] points out that there are other useful diodes and, in particular, he posted a video covering Schottky and Zener diodes.

These special diodes have particular purposes. A Schottky diode has a very low voltage drop and fast switching speed. Zener diodes have application in simple voltage regulation.

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A Flame Diode Pilot Light Sensor For A Burning Man Installation

A naked flame is a complex soup of ionised gases, that possesses an unexpected property. As you might expect with that much ionisation there is some level of electrical conductivity, but the unusual property comes in that a flame can be made to conduct in only one direction. In other words, it can become a diode of sorts, in a manner reminiscent of a vacuum tube diode.

[Paul Stoffregen] has made use of this phenomenon in a flame detector that he’s built to be installed on a Burning Man flame-based art installation. It forms part of a response to a problem with traditional pilot lights: when the wind blows a pilot light out, a cloud of unignited gas can accumulate. The sensor allows the pilot light to be automatically re-ignited if the flame is no longer present.

The circuit is a surprisingly simple one, with a PNP transistor being turned on by the flame diode being placed in its base circuit. This allows the intensity of the flame to be measured as well as whether or not it is present, and all at the expense of a microscopic current consumption. A capacitor is charged by the transistor, and the charge time is measured by a Teensy that uses it to estimate flame intensity and trigger the pilot light if necessary. Interestingly it comes from a patent that expired in 2013, it’s always worth including that particular line of research in your investigations.

All the construction details are in the page linked above, and you can see the system under test in the video below the break.

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Soda Bicarb Diode Steering Circuit For 7-Segment Display

[Hales] has been on a mission for a while to make his own diodes and put them to use and now he’s succeeded with diodes made of sodium bicarbonate and water, aluminum tape and soldered copper. By combining 49 of them he’s put together a soda bicarb diode steering circuit for a 7-segment display capable of showing the digits 0 to 9.

He takes the idea for his diode from electrolytic capacitors. A simple DIY electrolytic capacitor has an aluminum sheet immersed in a liquid electrolyte. The aluminum and the conductive electrolyte are the two capacitor plates. The dielectric is an aluminum oxide layer that forms on the aluminum when the correct polarity is applied, preventing current flow. But if you reverse polarity, that oxide layer breaks down and current flows. To [Hales] this sounded like it could also act as a diode and so he went to work doing plenty of experiments and refinements until he was confident he had something that worked fairly well.

In the end he came up with a diode that starts with a copper base covered in solder to protect the copper from his sodium bicarbonate and water electrolyte. A piece of aluminum tape goes on top of that but is electrically insulated from it. Then the electrolyte is dabbed on such that it’s partly on the solder and partly on the aluminum tape. The oxide forms between the electrolyte and the aluminum, providing the diode’s junction. Connections are made to the soldered copper and to the aluminum.

To truly try it out he put together a steering circuit for a seven segment display. For that he made a matrix of his diodes. The matrix has seven columns, one for each segment on the display. Then there are ten rows, one for each digit from 0 to 9. The number 1, for example, needs only two segments to light up, and so for the row representing 1, there are only two diodes, i.e. two dabs of electrolyte where the rows overlap the columns for the desired segments. The columns are permanently wired to their segments so the final connection need only be made by energizing the appropriate row of diodes. You can see [Hales] demonstrating this in the video below the break.

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Diodes: The Switch You Never Knew You Had

Vishay's take on the 1N4148 data sheet (PDF), describing it as a switching diode.
Vishay’s take on the 1N4148 data sheet (PDF), describing it as a switching diode.

When looking across the discrete components in your electronic armory, it is easy to overlook the humble diode. After all, one can be forgiven for the conclusion that the everyday version of this component doesn’t do much. They have none of the special skills you’d find in tunnel, Gunn, varicap, Zener, and avalanche diodes, or even LEDs, instead they are simply a one-way valve for electrical current. Connect them one way round and current flows, the other and it doesn’t. They rectify AC to DC, power supplies are full of them. Perhaps you’ve also used them to generate a stable voltage drop because they have a pretty constant voltage across them when current is flowing, but that’s it. Diodes: the shortest Hackaday article ever.

Not so fast with dismissing the diode though. There is another trick they have hiding up their sleeves, they can also act as a switch. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, after all a quick look at many datasheets for general purpose diodes should reveal their description as switching diodes.

So how does a diode switch work? The key lies in that one-way valve we mentioned earlier. When the diode is forward biased and conducting electricity it will pass through any variations in the voltage being put into them, but when it is reverse biased and not conducting any electricity it will not. Thus a signal can be switched on by passing it through a diode in forward bias, and then turned off by putting the diode into reverse bias.

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Diodes With Hats: Zener and Schottky

For beginners, diode types can sometimes be a bit of mental gymnastics. If all it does is act like a magic pixie check valve, why are there so many kinds? Schottky diodes are typically  hard to mentally set apart from the standard when described by a data sheet. Zener diodes can be downright baffling for beginners, especially when mistakenly thrown in a circuit in place of a regular 1N4001. [Afrotechmods] put together a great video explaining their difference and use cases.

In both videos he does an excellent job of describing the pros and cons while setting up experiments to exhibit each. For the Schottky it’s the faster switching and lower voltage drop. For Zener it’s less about the cons and more about exploiting its strange configuration for voltage clamps, regulators, and making expensive guitars sound bad with audio distortion circuits.

He finishes both videos with good design tips for selecting and using the parts as a burgeoning circuit designer. Diode data sheets should be less of a mystery afterwards.

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