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ECE 323 Term Paper

The Photodiode

John Risch

February 26, 2006

(background) Star forming pillars in the Eagle Nebula, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope's WFPC2 (CCD) (upper right) One of the CCD camera devices installed on the Hubble Space Telescope.

ECE 323 Term Paper The Photodiode

John Risch
The development of the p-i-n diode, also known as the avalanche photodiode, brought more efficient and advantageous features to the photodiode. The i stands for intrinsic, which represents that an intrinsic region is sandwiched in-between the heavily doped p and n regions. This lightly doped region takes control of the depletion region width and makes it possible to easily control the wavelength sensitivity of the junction of the particular photodiode. By being able to size the depletion region during fabrication, the electron voltage required to jump an electron across the junction can be chosen. Since the wavelength of the light is proportional to the amount of energy it deposits on impact with the junction, the frequency of sensitivity can be chosen. This device can be used in three modes: photovoltaic as a solar cell, reversedbiased as a photo detector, and forwardbiased as an LED.

The objective of this document is to explain the theoretical operation of the photodiode and its practical applications.

1. Introduction
Photodiodes are PN junction diodes designed specifically to harness the photoelectric effect. This means the device exposes the junction region of the PN diode to incoming photons which results in conducting the transfer of electrons across the junction. This process can also be reversed to produce photons. As can be speculated, there are many useful applications of this phenomenon, such as solar cells, light detection/emission, and thus signal receiving/sending.

3. The Solar Cell 2. Inside the Photodiode

A pn junction photodiode is just a pn junction diode that has been specifically fabricated and encapsulated to permit light penetration into the vicinity of the metallurgical junction. The absorption of light inside the diode creates electron-hole pairs, as pictured in Fig. 9.2.(1) Photovoltaic operation occurs when the photodiode is used in a circuit as a power source. By allowing photons to strike the pn junction, energy is passed into an electron jumping it across the junction, and a current is created. This devise is well known as a solar cell. Fig.9.11(1)

4. The Photo detector

The reverse-bias operation is another popular use for the photodiode. This operation allows the photodiode to be used as a light intensity-to-voltage transducer. Here is the common schematic symbol for a photodiode and some typical photodiode packages. (3i) (5i) Similarly the p-i-n junction photodiode is used for its selectable wavelength sensitivity. In the reverse-bias mode the photodiode is used in a circuit similar to the way a zener diode is placed, backward. The voltage across the photodiode will remain at full-scale voltage while no current flows until light hits the metallurgical junction. Each photon of the appropriate wavelength or greater will strike an electron with enough energy to pass it through the junction, and thus current flows. This conduction across the photodiode appears as a voltage drop and thus we have a voltage change to measure. Here is an example of the photo detector use of the photodiode in a circuit to receive a signal.

(1) Here is an example of a typical solar cell.

(1i) A compact and complex use of photodiodes is the CCD (charge-coupled device), which uses thousands of photodiodes imbedded on a single Si surface, here is a color CCD image showing the Si die architecture.



Applications for LED has spread from simple indicators for power, status, level readings etc. to huge multicolor displays such as the 1500 ft. long LED display on the Fredmont Street Experience, currently the largest in the world. (7i) Another application is research into LED light sources that can sustain plant growth for future use in providing food in space. (8i)

(4i) The CCD is used in Digital cameras, still and motion images are captured by focusing the desired frame onto a CCD just like one would a film strip, the light intensity on each photodiode is then recorded digitally and decoded as an image in software.

5. The LED
If we take the photo detector explanation and reverse it, we have the opposite device. By putting a photodiode in the forward-bias direction, we can supply a current through the junction and emit photons of the specified wavelength. Since the Electron energy drop across the junction can be chosen by design and the use of different elements, we can create different wavelengths. LEDs (light-emitting diodes) have become a new standard choice among light sources. Their ability to be compact and efficiency has made their use commonplace. Here is sample of some typical discrete LED packages

Of course there are more subtle applications such as low power consumption light replacements for incandescent lights in the home. (9i) New production products and technology advancements have brought LED devices such as the Luxeon K2 that can produce 140 lumens in 6500K white color. Future Electronics Inc. quoted me BIN LXK2-PW14-U00 is $3.45 each ( 1-9,999 pieces)(3) for 100 lumen Luxeon K2 emitter White LEDs.


6. Using the Photodiode

To illustrate the use of photodiodes in a distance sensor, I will go through a simple design to implement a TTL logic compatible distance sensor. This sensor will output a logic 1 voltage when reflective object is within a specified distance. First take a look at the circuit.

6. Conclusions
The photodiode is a very versatile solid state device that has many practical applications. Its use as a power source, light detector, and light emitter make it widely used throughout industry and commercial applications. Its interactions with electromagnetic waves allows us to sense, produce, and make use of light wavelengths we would otherwise not be able to interact with, except for sun burns and camp fires, or course. Its uses are so expandable it becomes hard to grasp the entirety of this devices possibilities. Today CCD imaging, LED lighting, and Solar collecting have been and remain on the cutting edge of current advances as we attempt to achieve even greater uses for these photodiode devices.

First the LED and photodiode must operate in the same wavelength, lets assume in this case that these photodiodes operate at 850 nm infrared. For the LED circuit we simply forward bias the LED in series with a resistor to run a current within the LEDs operational specifications. If this LED has a 2 volt drop in the forward-bias mode then we set R1 to 100 allowing about 30 mA of current through the LED. Next we set the photodiode in Reverse-bias with about a 10k resistor, this value is not pertinent accept that it not allow too much current to flow through the photodiode should a large amount of light hit the detector. We now have an LED emitting IR light in a particular direction, so we set the photodiode also to point in the same direction as to detect reflected IR light from an object in that direction. Should an object enter the path of the IR LED the reflected IR photons will bounce off the object and come back into the photo detector. These photons will allow current to flow through the diode, and thus drop the voltage across the photodiode. Now to sense this voltage drop and output an acceptable TTL logic voltage we can use a comparator with its inverting input tied to the photodiodes voltage bias, and the non-inverting input tied to a set voltage bias using a simple voltage divider. The voltage divider can be designed so that it will sit at a set voltage and should the voltage across the photodiode drop due to an object within the vicinity of the IR LED the inverting input will fall below the non-inverting input, and the comparator will output a voltage just below 5 volts, which will be acceptable as a TTL logic 1. During all time when the photodiode voltage remains higher then the divider bias, the comparator will see a greater voltage on its noninverting input and remain outputting logic 0. We are now done with the proximity sensor example and can see a simple but useful application of the photodiode in a sensor system that could be used to avoid or warn about an object that gets too close.

Text Sources: 1. 2. 3. Semiconductor Device Fundamentals, Robert F Pierret, reprinted 1996, ISBN: 0-13-178459-5, Online Encyclopedia reference Future Electronics LUMILEDS,

Image Sources: 1i. A Primer on Photodiode Technology,

2i., 3i. Electronics clipart,

4i. Concepts in Digital Imaging Technology, microlensarray.html

5i. Everlight Electronics Co., Ltd., 6i., 7i.,