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A Zener diode is a diode which allows current to flow in the forward direction in the same manner as an ideal diode, but will also permit it to flow in the reverse direction when the voltage is above a certain value known as the breakdown voltage, "zener knee voltage" or "zener voltage" or "avalanche point".
The device was named after Clarence Zener, who discovered this electrical property. Many diodes described as "zener" diodes rely instead on avalanche breakdown as the mechanism. Both types are used. Common applications include providing a reference voltage for voltage regulators, or to protect other semiconductor devices from momentary voltage pulses.
A conventional solid-state diode will allow significant current if it is reverse-biased above its reverse breakdown voltage. When the reverse bias breakdown voltage is exceeded, a conventional diode is subject to high current due to avalanche breakdown. Unless this current is limited by circuitry, the diode will be permanently damaged due to overheating. A zener diode exhibits almost the same properties, except the device is specially designed so as to have a reduced breakdown voltage, the so-called zener voltage. By contrast with the conventional device, a reverse-biased zener diode will exhibit a controlled breakdown and allow the current to keep the voltage across the zener diode close to the zener breakdown voltage. For example, a diode with a zener breakdown voltage of 3.2 V will exhibit a voltage drop of very nearly 3.2 V across a wide range of reverse currents. The zener diode is therefore ideal for applications such as the generation of a reference voltage (e.g. for an amplifierstage), or as a voltage stabilizer for low-current applications.
Another mechanism that produces a similar effect is the avalanche effect as in the avalanche diode.  The two types of diode are in fact constructed the same way and both effects are present in diodes of this type. In silicon diodes up to about 5.6 volts, the zener effect is the predominant effect and shows a marked negative temperature coefficient. Above 5.6 volts, the avalanche effect becomes predominant and exhibits a positive temperature coefficient.
The emitter-base junction of a bipolar NPN transistor behaves as a zener diode, with breakdown voltage at about 6.8 V for common bipolar processes and about 10 V for lightly doped base regions in BiCMOS processes. Older processes with poor control of doping characteristics had the variation of Zener voltage up to +-1 V, newer processes using ion implantation can achieve no more than +-0.25 V. The NPN transistor structure can be employed as a surface zener diode, with collector and emitter connected together as its cathode and base region as anode. In this approach the base doping profile usually narrows towards the surface, creating a region with intensified electric field where the avalanche breakdown occurs. The hot carriers produced by acceleration in the intense field sometime shoot into the oxide layer above the junction and become trapped there. The accumulation of trapped charges can then cause Zener walkout, a corresponding change of the Zener voltage of the junction. The same effect can be achieved by radiation damage.
The emitter-base zener diodes can handle only smaller currents as the energy is dissipated in the base depletion region which is very small. Higher amount of dissipated energy (higher current for longer time, or a short very high current spike) will cause thermal damage to the junction and/or its contacts. Partial damage of the junction can shift its Zener voltage. Total destruction of the Zener junction by overheating it and causing migration of metallization across the junction ("spiking") can be used intentionally as a Zener zap antifuse.
A subsurface Zener diode, also called buried Zener, is a device similar to the surface Zener, but with the avalanche region located deeper in the structure, typically several micrometers below the oxide. The hot carriers then lose energy by collisions with the semiconductor lattice before reaching the oxide layer and cannot be trapped there. The Zener walkout phenomenon therefore does not occur here, and the buried Zeners have voltage constant over their entire lifetime. Most buried Zeners have breakdown voltage of 5-7 volts. Several different junction structures are used.
Zener diodes are widely used as voltage references and as shunt regulators to regulate the voltage across small circuits. When connected in parallel with a variable voltage source so that it is reverse biased, a zener diode conducts when the voltage reaches the diode's reverse breakdown voltage. From that point on, the relatively low impedance of the diode keeps the voltage across the diode at that value.