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Discrete semiconductor electronic components

A semiconductor is a device can act as either a conductor or resistor / insulator depending upon certain conditions. The most common semiconductor material is silicon, but there are other materials used depending upon the characteristics required. The semiconductor allows a circuit to act differently depending upon different conditions and is essential for all but the most basic electronic circuits. An integrated circuit provides a means of encapsulating multiple devices into a single package (in some cases the equivelant of many thousands of individual components), but discrete devices are still heavily used as they are usually able to handle higher power loads than integrated circuits.


The diode is the basic building block of the active electronic circuit. The basic characteristic of a diode is to allow current to flow in one direction, but not the other. The two leads are called the anode and the cathode. When the anode is more positive than the cathode then it will conduct, when it is reversed then it will not.

This on it's own is a useful feature as it can be used to protect circuits against the power being reversed and can be used to convert AC voltage to DC voltage. Depending upon how the diode is manufactured some of the other characteristics of the diode can be exploited for different uses.

Circuit symbol for diode

Circuit symbol for diode

Rectifier diode

A rectifier diode uses the normal characteristic of the diode allowing current to flow in one direction and blocking current flow in the reverse direction. The diagram below shows the effect of a single rectifier diode on an AC input. In this mode the forward voltage is transferred through the diode, but the reverse is blocked which results in only half of the AC phase being made available. The important things to identify for a rectifier diode is the maximum reverse voltage VR and the maximum forward current IF. There will be some reverse leakage current, but this is normally negligable for a rectifier circuit.

See an interactive demonstration of the bridge rectifier diode at work, including input and output wavforms.

Bridge Rectifier

Four diodes can be connected into a configuration as a bridge-rectifier. This circuit will take an AC signal and convert it into a DC signal at the output. The bridge rectifier can be made using 4 discrete diodes or it is available as a single bridge rectifier package.

When combined with a capacitor between the output this will result in a fairly smooth DC output voltage. Normally thi sis an electrolytic capacitor with a value of between 470μF and 2200μF. A voltage regulator is normally used as well to ensure a consistant voltage.

Zener Diode

The zener diode exploits the reverse breakdown voltage of the diode. The zener diode is connected in reverse in a circuit and when the breakdown voltage is reached the diode will conduct. This can be used directly across the output of a circuit, but is normally used as a component in a stabiliser circuit.

Circuit symbol for zener diode

Circuit symbol for the zener diode

Light Emitting Diode (LED)

The light emitting diode, usually known as LED, is a special diode constructed so as to emit light when a current flows through it. These are discussed further in the optoelectronic component section


Single resistor The transistors are one of the main components used in electronic circuits. These are available as discrete components as discussed here, but are used far more on integrated circuits where the transistor is usually the dominent component.

Transistors work as current amplifiers. They are available as NPN or PNP types depending upon the direction of the current flow at the base. The NPN is the most common and is the one discussed here; the same applies for the PNP transistor except that the base current is reversed. Transistor have 3 terminals; named collector (c), emitter (e) and base (b). When there is no input signal (current) at the base then no current will flow between the collector and emitter, but by introducing a signal to the base then the transistor will switch on and a current can flow. With an appropriate sized current at the base the transistor acts as an amplifier increasing the signal in a linear way. This can be used as a simple on-off switch to increase the load that can be driven from a small signal by running in the saturated region.

When combined with other transistors it is possible to create logic gates and hence other more complex digital circuits.

Circuit symbol for transistor

NPN Transistor

ISO / European circuit symbol for an NPN transistor

PNP Transistor

ISO / European circuit symbol for an PNP transistor

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