A photodiode is a semiconductor device that converts light into an electrical current. The current is generated when photons are absorbed in the photodiode. Photodiodes may contain optical filters, built-in lenses, and may have large or small surface areas. Photodiodes usually have a slower response time as their surface area increases. The common, traditional solar cell used to generate electric solar power is a large area photodiode.
Photodiodes are similar to regular semiconductor diodes except that they may be either exposed (to detect vacuum UV or X-rays) or packaged with a window or optical fiber connection to allow light to reach the sensitive part of the device. Many diodes designed for use specially as a photodiode use a PIN junction rather than a p–n junction, to increase the speed of response. A photodiode is designed to operate in reverse bias.
Principle of operation
A photodiode is a p–n junction or PIN structure. When a photon of sufficient energy strikes the diode, it creates an electron–hole pair. This mechanism is also known as the inner photoelectric effect. If the absorption occurs in the junction's depletion region, or one diffusion length away from it, these carriers are swept from the junction by the built-in electric field of the depletion region. Thus holes move toward the anode, and electrons toward the cathode, and a photocurrent is produced. The total current through the photodiode is the sum of the dark current (current that is generated in the absence of light) and the photocurrent, so the dark current must be minimized to maximize the sensitivity of the device.
To first order, for a given spectral distribution, the photocurrent is linearly proportional to the irradiance.
When used in zero bias or photovoltaic mode, photocurrent flows out of the anode through a short circuit to the cathode. If the circuit is opened or has a load impedance, restricting the photocurrent out of the device, a voltage builds up in the direction that forward biases the diode, that is, anode positive with respect to cathode. If the circuit is open or the impedance is high, a forward current will consume all or some of the photocurrent. This mode exploits the photovoltaic effect, which is the basis for solar cells – a traditional solar cell is just a large area photodiode. For optimum power output, the photovoltaic cell will be operated at a voltage that causes only a small forward current compared to the photocurrent.
In this mode the diode is reverse biased (with the cathode driven positive with respect to the anode). This reduces the response time because the additional reverse bias increases the width of the depletion layer, which decreases the junction's capacitance and increases the region with an electric field that will cause electrons to be quickly collected. The reverse bias also reduces the dark current without much change in the photocurrent.
Although this mode is faster, the photoconductive mode can exhibit more electronic noise due to dark current or avalanche effects. The leakage current of a good PIN diode is so low (<1 nA) that the Johnson–Nyquist noise of the load resistance in a typical circuit often dominates.
Avalanche photodiodes are photodiodes with structure optimized for operating with high reverse bias, approaching the reverse breakdown voltage. This allows each photo-generated carrier to be multiplied by avalanche breakdown, resulting in internal gain within the photodiode, which increases the effective responsivity of the device.
A phototransistor is a light-sensitive transistor. A common type of phototransistor, called a photobipolar transistor, is in essence a bipolar transistor encased in a transparent case so that light can reach the base–collector junction. It was invented by Dr. John N. Shive (more famous for his wave machine) at Bell Labs in 1948,  but it was not announced until 1950. The electrons that are generated by photons in the base–collector junction are injected into the base, and this photodiode current is amplified by the transistor's current gain β (or hfe). If the base and collector leads are used and the emitter is left unconnected, the phototransistor becomes a photodiode. While phototransistors have a higher responsivity for light they are not able to detect low levels of light any better than photodiodes. Phototransistors also have significantly longer response times. Field-effect phototransistors, also known as photoFETs, are light-sensitive field-effect transistors. Unlike photobipolar transistors, photoFETs control drain-source current by creating a gate voltage.
A Solaristor is a two-terminal gate-less phototransistor. A compact class of two-terminal phototransistors or solaristors have been demonstrated in 2018 by ICN2 researchers. The novel concept is a two-in-one power source plus transistor device that runs on solar energy by exploiting a memresistive effect in the flow of photogenerated carriers.
The material used to make a photodiode is critical to defining its properties, because only photons with sufficient energy to excite electrons across the material's bandgap will produce significant photocurrents.
Materials commonly used to produce photodiodes include:
Because of their greater bandgap, silicon-based photodiodes generate less noise than germanium-based photodiodes.
Any p–n junction, if illuminated, is potentially a photodiode. Semiconductor devices such as diodes, transistors and ICs contain p–n junctions, and will not function correctly if they are illuminated by unwanted electromagnetic radiation (light) of wavelength suitable to produce a photocurrent; this is avoided by encapsulating devices in opaque housings. If these housings are not completely opaque to high-energy radiation (ultraviolet, X-rays, gamma rays), diodes, transistors and ICs can malfunction due to induced photo-currents. Background radiation from the packaging is also significant. Radiation hardening mitigates these effects.
In some cases, the effect is actually wanted, for example to use LEDs as light-sensitive devices (see LED as light sensor) or even for energy harvesting, then sometimes called light-emitting and -absorbing diodes (LEADs).
Critical performance parameters of a photodiode include:
When a photodiode is used in an optical communication system, all these parameters contribute to the sensitivity of the optical receiver, which is the minimum input power required for the receiver to achieve a specified bit error rate.
P–n photodiodes are used in similar applications to other photodetectors, such as photoconductors, charge-coupled devices, and photomultiplier tubes. They may be used to generate an output which is dependent upon the illumination (analog; for measurement and the like), or to change the state of circuitry (digital; either for control and switching, or digital signal processing).
Photodiodes are used in consumer electronics devices such as compact disc players, smoke detectors, medical devices and the receivers for infrared remote control devices used to control equipment from televisions to air conditioners. For many applications either photodiodes or photoconductors may be used. Either type of photosensor may be used for light measurement, as in camera light meters, or to respond to light levels, as in switching on street lighting after dark.
Photosensors of all types may be used to respond to incident light, or to a source of light which is part of the same circuit or system. A photodiode is often combined into a single component with an emitter of light, usually a light-emitting diode (LED), either to detect the presence of a mechanical obstruction to the beam (slotted optical switch), or to couple two digital or analog circuits while maintaining extremely high electrical isolation between them, often for safety (optocoupler). The combination of LED and photodiode is also used in many sensor systems to characterize different types of products based on their optical absorbance.
Photodiodes are often used for accurate measurement of light intensity in science and industry. They generally have a more linear response than photoconductors.
They are also widely used in various medical applications, such as detectors for computed tomography (coupled with scintillators), instruments to analyze samples (immunoassay), and pulse oximeters.
PIN diodes are much faster and more sensitive than p–n junction diodes, and hence are often used for optical communications and in lighting regulation.
P–n photodiodes are not used to measure extremely low light intensities. Instead, if high sensitivity is needed, avalanche photodiodes, intensified charge-coupled devices or photomultiplier tubes are used for applications such as astronomy, spectroscopy, night vision equipment and laser rangefinding.
Pinned photodiode is not a PIN photodiode, it has p+/n/p regions in it. It has a shallow P+ implant in N type diffusion layer over a P-type epitaxial substrate layer. It is used in CMOS Active pixel sensor.
Advantages compared to photomultipliers:
Disadvantages compared to photomultipliers:
A one-dimensional array of hundreds or thousands of photodiodes can be used as a position sensor, for example as part of an angle sensor. One advantage of photodiode arrays (PDAs) is that they allow for high speed parallel read out since the driving electronics may not be built in like a traditional CMOS or CCD sensor.
- Band gap
- Optical interconnect
- Light Peak
- Interconnect bottleneck
- Optical fiber cable
- Optical communication
- Parallel optical interface
- Semiconductor device
- Solar cell
- Avalanche photodiode
- LEDs as Photodiode Light Sensors
- Light meter
- Image sensor
- Transimpedance amplifier