breaks downand conducts heavily in the direction of normally high resistance. When the reverse voltage at which breakdown occurs remains nearly constant for a wide range of currents, the phenomenon is called avalanching. A diode using this property, called a Zener diode, can be used to regulate the voltage in a circuit.
Semiconductor diodes can be designed to have a variety of characteristics. A thermistor is a special semiconductor diode whose conductivity increases with the diode temperature. A varactor, or varicap, exhibits a capacitance that is dependent upon the voltage across it. In an Esaki, or tunnel, diode, the current through the device decreases as the voltage is increased within a certain range; this property, known as negative resistance, makes it useful as an amplifier (see tunneling). Gunn diodes are negative-resistance diodes that are the basis of some microwave oscillators. Light-sensitive, or photosensitive, diodes can be used to measure illumination; the voltage drop across them depends on the amount of light that strikes them. Photodiodes, which respond to being struck by packets of light, or photons, can be used as solar cells. Schottky diodes are used in low voltage circuits and batteries. Snap diodes provide very fast voltage transitions.
A light-emitting diode (LED) produces light as current passes through it; a specialized LED, called a laser diode, emits laser light, useful for telecommunications through optical fibers. The first visible-light (red) LEDs were developed in the 1960s; these were initially used in indicator lights and alphanumeric displays. The development of green and, later and more importantly, blue LEDs made possible their use to produce white light for ordinary, energy-efficient lighting. In 2014 Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their development of practical blue LEDs in the 1990s. LEDs are now used in computer monitors and television screens (where they provide the backlight for liquid crystal displays), in flashlights, and in lighting. Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are made with plastics rather than silicon and other traditional semiconductor materials. Color OLEDs are thinner, lighter, brighter, and use less power than color LEDs. They are used in small portable devices such as smartphones and digital cameras and increasingly in television and computer screens.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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