Photodiode

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Photodetector from a CD-ROM Drive. Visible are 3 photodiodes.
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A photodiode

A photodiode is a type of photodetector capable of converting light into either current or voltage, depending upon the mode of operation.

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 fibre connection to allow light to reach the sensitive part of the device. Many diodes designed for use specifically as a photodiode will also use a PIN junction rather than the typical PN junction.

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 PN junction or PIN 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. Thus holes move toward the anode, and electrons toward the cathode, and a photocurrent is produced.

Photovoltaic mode

When used in zero bias or photovoltaic mode, the flow of photocurrent out of the device is restricted and a voltage builds up. The diode becomes forward biased and "dark current" begins to flow across the junction in the direction opposite to the photocurrent. This mode is responsible for the photovoltaic effect, which is the basis for solar cells—in fact, a solar cell is just an array of large area photodiodes.

Photoconductive mode

In this mode the diode is often (but not always) reverse biased. This increases the width of the depletion layer, which decreases the junction's capacitance resulting in faster response times. The reverse bias induces only a small amount of current (known as saturation or back current) along its direction while the photocurrent remains virtually the same.

Although this mode is faster, the photovoltaic mode tends to exhibit less electronic noise. (The leakage current of a good PIN diode is so low – < 1nA – that the Johnson–Nyquist noise of the load resistance in a typical circuit often dominates.)

Other modes of operation

Avalanche photodiodes have a similar structure to regular photodiodes, 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.

Phototransistors also consist of a photodiode with internal gain. 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 electrons that are generated by photons in the base-collector junction are injected into the base, and this current is amplified by the transistor operation. Note that although phototransistors have a higher responsivity for light they are unable to detect low levels of light any better than photodiodes. Phototransistors also have slower response times.

Materials

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

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.

Features

Critical performance parameters of a photodiode include:

responsivity
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.

Applications

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Photodiode schematic symbol

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

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
8. High quantum efficiency, typically 80%
9. No high voltage required

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.