Is A Diode A Switch?

Many hardware people around these parts will be familiar with devices used as switches, using at least three-terminals to effect this, an input, an output and a gate. Typical devices that spring to mind are bipolar transistors, triacs and and ye olde triode valve. Can you use a diode to switch a signal even if it has only two terminals? Of course you can, and it’s a tried and trusted technique very common in test equipment and circuits that handle RF signals. (Video, embedded below.)

The trick is that diodes block current in one direction but allow it to flow in the other, denoted by the deliberately obvious symbol. So your DC signals can’t swim upstream, but the same isn’t true for AC. Signals can be passed “the wrong way” through a diode by inducing small fluctuations in the current. Put another way, if you bias the diode into conduction, changes in the downstream voltage level result in changes in the current flowing through the diode, and the (smaller) AC signal gets through. But if you take away the bias, by turning off the DC bias voltage source, the diode switches back to non-conducting, blocking the signal. And that makes a diode a DC controlled switch for AC signals.

While [IMSAI Guy] demonstrates this with a signal diode, as he explains, one would typically use a PIN diode, which has an extra intrinsic (undoped) region between the P and the N, allowing the device to fully turn off, reducing leakage significantly.

Of course, we’ve covered diodes many times from different angles, there is always something to learn. Checkout how high voltage diodes are constructed, diodes detecting ionising radiation, and finally this great series about our new favourite two-terminal device.

See, the humble diode can be fun after all!

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