A diode is a common semiconductor device used in many different types of electronic circuits. When an electrical signal passes through a diode, the diode consumes a small amount of the signal’s voltage in its operation. The difference between the voltage of the signal entering the diode and the voltage of the signal exiting the diode is the diode voltage drop. Although a diode voltage drop can refer to either the diode’s forward or reverse voltage drop, it typically describes the forward voltage drop.
The construction of a diode involves joining an anode and a cathode, two pieces of material with different electrical charges. The anode is positively charged and the cathode is negatively charged. At the point where these two different materials meet, called the junction, the two different opposing charges effectively cancel each other out. This area without a charge is the diode’s depletion layer, which forms an insulating layer within the diode between the anode and cathode.
When an electrical signal enters a diode’s cathode, the additional negative force increases the width of the depletion layer as it reacts with the positively charged anode. The wider depletion layer will block the signal from passing through the diode and consume all of the voltage in the process. For example, if 5 volts enter the diode, the diode voltage drop will also be 5 volts. A diode in this state is reverse biased, and the voltage drop is the diode’s reverse voltage drop.
An electrical signal entering a diode’s anode creates a different set of conditions within the diode. The negatively charged signal will bridge across the anode, meet the cathode, and pass through the diode, continuing on to the rest of the circuit. In the process, a relatively small amount of the voltage is lost overcoming the anode’s positive charge. For a typical silicon diode, the voltage lost is approximately 0.7 volts. A diode in this state is forward biased, and the voltage drop is the diode’s forward voltage drop.
The difference between the forward and reverse states in a diode permits them to block a signal in one direction by dropping 100% of the voltage but allowing it to pass in the other by only dropping a small amount. As most diodes have a reverse voltage drop of 100%, the assumption is that the term “diode voltage drop" refers to the forward voltage drop; however, this is not always the case.
Specialty diodes exist that do not drop 100% of the reverse voltage, such as varicap or varactor diodes. In these diodes, the charges of the cathodes and anodes are not even across their widths. As a result, these diodes can allow part of the signal entering the cathode to pass through the diodes even though they are in a reverse biased state. When describing the voltage drop in these types of diodes, it is important to differentiate between the forward and reverse voltage drops.