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A photodiode is a semiconductor diode that functions as a photodetector. Photodiodes are packaged with either a window or optical fibre connection, to let in the light to the sensitive part of the device. They may also be used without a window to detect vacuum UV or X-rays.

A phototransistor is in essence nothing more than a bipolar transistor that is encased in a transparent case so that light can reach the base-collector junction. The phototransistor works like a photodiode, but with a much higher responsivity for light, because the electrons that are generated by photons in the base-collector junction are injected into the base, and this current is then amplified by the transistor operation. However, a phototransistor has a slower response time than a photodiode.


Quick Reference Guide

Most Photodiodes will look like the picture to the right, that is, similar to a Light Emitting Diode. They will have two leads, or wires, coming from the bottom. The shorter end of the two is the cathode, while the longer end is the anode. See below for a schematic drawing of the anode and cathode side. Current will pass from the anode to the cathode, basically following the arrow.

Principle of operation

A photodiode is a p-n junction or p-i-n structure. When a photon of sufficient energy strikes the diode, it excites an electron thereby creating a mobile electron and a positively charged electron hole. 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 field of the depletion region, producing a photocurrent.

Photodiodes can be used under either zero bias (photovoltaic mode) or reverse bias (photoconductive mode). In zero bias, light falling on the diode causes a current across the device, leading to forward bias which in turn induces "dark current" in the opposite direction to the photocurrent. This is called the photovoltaic effect, and is the basis for solar cells — in fact, a solar cell is just a large number of big photodiodes.

Reverse bias induces only little current (known as saturation or back current) along its direction. But a more important effect of reverse bias is widening of the depletion layer (therefore expanding the reaction volume) and strengthening the photocurrent. Circuits based on this effect are more sensitive to light than ones based on the photovoltaic effect and also tend to have lower capacitance, which improves the speed of their time response. On the other hand, the photovoltaic mode tends to exhibit less electronic noise.

Avalanche photodiodes have a similar structure, but they are operated with much higher reverse bias. 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.


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:

Material Wavelength range (nm)
Silicon 190–1100
Germanium 400–1700
Indium gallium arsenide 800–2600
Lead sulfide <1000-3500

Because of their greater bandgap, silicon-based photodiodes generate less noise than germanium-based photodiodes, but germanium photodiodes must be used for wavelengths longer than approximately 1 µm.

Since transistors and ICs are made of semiconductors, and contain P-N junctions, almost every active component is potentially a photodiode. Many components, especially those sensitive to small currents, will not work correctly if illuminated, due to the induced photocurrents. In most components this is not desired, so they are placed in an opaque housing. Since housings are not completely opaque to X-rays or other high energy radiation, these can still cause many ICs to malfunction due to induced photo-currents.


Critical performance parameters of a photodiode include:

The ratio of generated photocurrent to incident light power, typically expressed in A/W when used in photoconductive mode. The responsivity may also be expressed as a quantum efficiency, or the ratio of the number of photogenerated carriers to incident photons and thus a unitless quantity.
dark current
The current through the photodiode in the absence of light, when it is operated in photoconductive mode. The dark current includes photocurrent generated by background radiation and the saturation current of the semiconductor junction. Dark current must be accounted for by calibration if a photodiode is used to make an accurate optical power measurement, and it is also a source of noise when a photodiode is used in an optical communication system.
noise-equivalent power
(NEP) The minimum input optical power to generate photocurrent, equal to the rms noise current in a 1 hertz bandwidth. The related characteristic detectivity (D) is the inverse of NEP, 1/NEP; and the specific detectivity (D^\star) is the detectivity normalized to the area (A) of the photodetector, D^\star=D\sqrt{A}. The NEP is roughly the minimum detectable input power of a photodiode.

When a photodiode is used in an optical communication system, 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 ratio.



P-N photodiodes are used in similar applications to other photodetectors, such as photoconductors, charge-coupled devices, and photomultiplier tubes.

Photodiodes are used in consumer electronics devices such as compact disc players, smoke detectors, and the receivers for remote controls in VCRs and televisions.

In other consumer items such as camera light meters, clock radios (the ones that dim the display when it's dark) and street lights, photoconductors are often used rather than photodiodes, although in principle either could be used.

Photodiodes are often used for accurate measurement of light intensity in science and industry. They generally have a better, more linear response than photoconductors.

They are also widely used in various medical applications, such as detectors for computed tomography (coupled with scintillators) or instruments to analyze samples (immunoassay). They are also used in blood gas monitors.

PIN diodes are much faster and more sensitive than ordinary 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 range finding.

Comparison with photomultipliers

Advantages compared to photomultipliers:

  1. Excellent linearity of output current as a function of incident light
  2. Spectral response from 190 nm to 1100 nm (silicon), longer wavelengths with other semiconductor materials
  3. Low noise
  4. Ruggedized to mechanical stress
  5. Low cost
  6. Compact and light weight
  7. Long lifetime
  8. High quantum efficiency, typically 80%
  9. No high voltage required

Disadvantages compared to photomultipliers:

  1. Small area
  2. No internal gain (except avalanche photodiodes, but their gain is typically 10²–10³ compared to up to 108 for the photomultiplier)
  3. Much lower overall sensitivity
  4. Photon counting only possible with specially designed, usually cooled photodiodes, with special electronic circuits
  5. Response time for many designs is slower

P-N vs. P-I-N Photodiodes

  1. Due to the intrinsic layer, a PIN photodiode must be reverse biased (Vr). The Vr increases the depletion region allowing a larger volume for electron-hole pair production, and reduces the capacitance thereby increasing the bandwidth.
  2. The Vr also introduces noise current, which reduces the S/N ratio. Therefore, a reverse bias is recommended for higher bandwidth applications and/or applications where a wide dynamic range is required.
  3. A PN photodiode is more suitable for lower light applications because it allows for unbiased operation.

Photodiode array

Hundreds or thousands (up to 2048) photodiodes of typical sensitive area 0.025mmx1mm each arranged as a one-dimensional array, which can be used as a position 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.

See also


Portions of this article are adapted from Federal Standard 1037C and from the FAA Glossary of Optical Communications Terms

This article contains material from the Federal Standard 1037C, which, as a work of the United States Government, is in the public domain.

  • Gowar, John, Optical Communication Systems, 2 ed., Prentice-Hall, Hempstead UK, 1993 (ISBN 0-13-638727-6)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Photodiode". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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