A Zener diode is a special type of diode designed to reliably allow current to flow “backwards” when a certain set reverse voltage, known as the Zener voltage, is reached.
Zener diodes are manufactured with a great variety of Zener voltages and some are even variable. Some Zener diodes have a sharp, highly doped p–n junction with a low Zener voltage, in which case the reverse conduction occurs due to electron quantum tunnelling in the short space between p and n regions − this is known as the Zener effect, after Clarence Zener. Diodes with a higher Zener voltage have a more gradual junction and their mode of operation also involves avalanche breakdown. Both breakdown types are present in Zener diodes with the Zener effect predominating at lower voltages and avalanche breakdown at higher voltages.
Zener diodes are widely used in electronic equipment of all kinds and are one of the basic building blocks of electronic circuits. They are used to generate low-power stabilized supply rails from a higher voltage and to provide reference voltages for circuits, especially stabilized power supplies. They are also used to protect circuits from overvoltage, especially electrostatic discharge (ESD).