A photodiode is a diode optimized to produce an electron current flow in response to irradiation by ultraviolet, visible, or infrared light. Silicon is most often used to fabricate photodiodes; though, germanium and gallium arsenide can be used. The junction through which light enters the semiconductor must be thin enough to pass most of the light on to the active region (depletion region) where light is converted to electron hole pairs.
In Figure below a shallow P-type diffusion into an N-type wafer produces a PN junction near the surface of the wafer. The P-type layer needs to be thin to pass as much light as possible. A heavy N+ diffusion on the back of the wafer makes contact with metalization. The top metalization may be a fine grid of metallic fingers on the top of the wafer for large cells. In small photodiodes, the top contact might be a sole bond wire contacting the bare P-type silicon top.
Light entering the top of the photodiode stack fall off exponentially in with depth of the silicon. A thin top P-type layer allows most photons to pass into the depletion region where electron-hole pairs are formed. The electric field across the depletion region due to the built in diode potential causes electrons to be swept into the N-layer, holes into the P-layer. Actually electron-hole pairs may be formed in any of the semiconductor regions. However, those formed in the depletion region are most likely to be separated into the respective N and P-regions. Many of the electron-hole pairs formed in the P and N-regions recombine. Only a few do so in the depletion region. Thus, a few electron-hole pairs in the N and P-regions, and most in the depletion region contribute to photocurrent, that current resulting from light falling on the photodiode.
The voltage out of a photodiode may be observed. Operation in this photovoltaic (PV) mode is not linear over a large dynamic range, though it is sensitive and has low noise at frequencies less than 100 kHz. The preferred mode of operation is often photocurrent (PC) mode because the current is linearly proportional to light flux over several decades of intensity, and higher frequency response can be achieved. PC mode is achieved with reverse bias or zero bias on the photodiode. A current amplifier (transimpedance amplifier) should be used with a photodiode in PC mode. Linearity and PC mode are achieved as long as the diode does not become forward biased.
High speed operation is often required of photodiodes, as opposed to solar cells. Speed is a function of diode capacitance, which can be minimized by decreasing cell area. Thus, a sensor for a high speed fiber optic link will use an area no larger than necessary, say 1 mm2. Capacitance may also be decreased by increasing the thickness of the depletion region, in the manufacturing process or by increasing the reverse bias on the diode.
PIN diode The p-i-n diode or PIN diode is a photodiode with an intrinsic layer between the P and N-regions as in Figure below. The P–Intrinsic-N structure increases the distance between the P and N conductive layers, decreasing capacitance, increasing speed. The volume of the photo sensitive region also increases, enhancing conversion efficiency. The bandwidth can extend to 10’s of gHz. PIN photodiodes are the preferred for high sensitivity, and high speed at moderate cost.
Avalanche photo diode:An avalanche photodiode (APD)designed to operate at high reverse bias exhibits an electron multiplier effect analogous to a photomultiplier tube. The reverse bias can run from 10’s of volts to nearly 2000 V. The high level of reverse bias accelerates photon created electron-hole pairs in the intrinsic region to a high enough velocity to free additional carriers from collisions with the crystal lattice. Thus, many electrons per photon result. The motivation for the APD is to achieve amplification within the photodiode to overcome noise in external amplifiers. This works to some extent. However, the APD creates noise of its own. At high speed the APD is superior to a PIN diode amplifier combination, though not for low speed applications. APD’s are expensive, roughly the price of a photomultiplier tube. So, they are only competitive with PIN photodiodes for niche applications. One such application is single photon counting as applied to nuclear physics.
Article Extracted from Tony R. Kuphaldt Lessons In Electric Circuits — Volume III Chapter 3 under the terms and conditions of the CC BY License.