Screaming Circuits: Indicating Polarity On Diodes

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Indicating Polarity On Diodes

Everyone knows which way current flows through a diode. Right? Of course they do. Diodes only allow current to flow in one direction.

Well, sort of.

In the case of your garden variety rectifier, barrier diode, or LED, that's true. That line of thinking leads a lot of people to assume that you can indicate diode polarity by putting a plus sign "+" next to the anode.

Here's why you can't.

Zener and TVS diodes have a breakdown voltage. They are put in the circuit with their cathode on the positive side. In that configuration, they don't conduct unless the voltage rises above their breakdown point. Zeners and TVSs are used for regulation, transient suppression, and things of that sort.

But wait! There's more!

Regular diodes can be pointed backwards too. Anytime an inductive load is switched, like a solenoid or motor, you need a flyback diode to protect the switching logic. A MOSFET switching a solenoid on and off is a good case to look at.

N-MOSFET SolenoidWhen the MOSFET turns off, the current in the solenoid coil starts to drop. As it starts to drop, the magnetic field generated by the current flow starts to collapse. The collapsing magnetic field generates an opposite current, referred to as flyback, or back EMF.

To save your silicon switching device, you put a flyback diode across the coil, or motor, terminals, pointing backwards from normal current flow - with the cathode pointed toward +V. Doind so shorts the flyback current back into the coil, preventing damage to the MOSFET. These are typically Schottky diodes, but can be ordinary rectifier diodes.

A "+" plus sign alone, doesn't tell anyone anything. For more information on what to do, read this post. Just for fun, read this post too.

Duane Benson
Diodes. Not just for breakfast anymore

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