A Tester For Zener Diodes

Zener diodes are used for several purposes, from providing a reference voltage, to protecting sensitive circuits from being destroyed by the wrong input.

Today, I will show you how these diodes work and how to build a simple circuit to measure their most important characteristic, the reverse breakdown voltage. To know more on this topic, please watch the companion video posted on YouTube.

A zener diode looks like a regular diode and actually behaves as such when directly biased (positive voltage on the anode).

However, when inversely biased (negative voltage on the anode), a zener diode behaves in a completely different way.

Let’s take a look at its characteristic I-V diagram:


You can see that in the region of direct (or forward) bias, the zener behaves just like any diode. It also seems like in the inverse bias it behaves like a regular diode.  However, there is a big difference between the two.

For a regular diode, the reverse breakdown voltage is very high, in the order of 100V or more, sometimes much more. Such high that you never think at it when you use regular diodes, and you assume that with inverse bias the diode just does not conduct electric current.

For a zener diode, instead, the reverse breakdown voltage is low, in the order of one or two digit volts. Therefore, it is very easy in an electronic circuit to bring this kind of diode to reach the condition when it will start conducing electric current even if inversely polarized.

We actually exploit this behaviour to create reference voltages, or to provide a protection against unwanted voltages at the input of certain circuits, or a ton of other things.

The behaviour of a diode depends in fact upon the way it was fabricated, and in particular upon how it was doped. Regular diodes are lightly doped, while zener diodes are heavily doped. Depending on the amount of doping on both the P and the N side of the junction, the reverse breakdown voltage changes. That way, manufacturers can create zener diodes within a large range of breakdown voltages.

Problem is, manufacturers often don’t put the value of the breakdown voltage on the body of the components. Instead, they put some internal code or, sometimes, nothing at all.

So, if you had a number of such diodes on your workbench, how to distinguish them from one another?

Meet the zener tester.

It is a device that allows you to measure the reverse breakdown voltage, so you know if the diode works and what that voltage is.

How such a tester works? From the I-V diagram above, you can see that the characteristic of the zener diode is an almost vertical line when polarized in the reverse bias region. For any current value in that vertical line, the voltage is always the same and corresponds to the breakdown voltage. So, if we circulate a current at any point of that vertical line, we can measure at the terminals of that diode its breakdown voltage.

The zener tester I’m showing you today does just that: forces a current into the zener diode so we can measure the value of the breakdown voltage. We choose this current in such a way that it is high enough to stay away from the point where the characteristic is not linear, but low enough to avoid dissipating inside the diode a power that the diode itself cannot handle.

The following link allows you to download an archive containing the schematic of such device, along with the OpenSCAD code to 3D print the box for the device.


In the schematic you’ll see that I used a ready-made boost converter and a digital voltmeter. Here are the links to the store where I bought them. Of course you are free to use any other equivalent component. It will work as well.



Please make sure to watch the YouTube video that completes the information I provided in this post. Between the two, you should have a complete view of the design of the device and should be able to build it.

Happy experiments!


Theremin v.2 Power Supply Design


For the new version of the Theremin, I have chosen to use a dual 12V power supply. This will have more flexibility because it will allow me to use more sophisticated units, possibly using op-amps.

The circuit is very basic: it uses a dual 14V transformer (not shown in the schematic) capable of providing 1.5A at its output.

A dual transformer is made up as in the following picture.


Is has a primary winding that is connected to the AC power supply outlet, and a secondary winding with a center tapped wire that is usually put to ground on the low voltage circuit side.

Voltage between either end wire of the secondary and the center tapped wire is usually the same (with the exception of specifically made transformers), which we call V.

The voltage measured between the two end wires of the winding is instead two times V or 2V.

Sometimes, instead of having a single secondary winding, we have two, carrying the exact same voltage. In this case, we can connect together the two closest wires and consider that as the center tapped wire. Then everything works as the first kind of transformer.


The AC current of the transformer is converted in to a DC current through the usage of a bridge rectifier and the capacitors C1 and C2.

The bridge rectifier converts the sine wave coming from the transformer into a fully rectified wave.


Then, the capacitor that follows (in this case C1 and C2) starts charging over the ascending sides of the wave and discharging, partially, over the descending sides of the wave, basically filling the wave in between crests and making it look like more a straight horizontal line with some disturbance in it that we call ripple (the red line in the following picture).


In general, depending on the use of the power supply, we define a maximum value of the ripple that the circuit can handle.

In our case, we need to make sure that the voltage at the input of the regulators never goes below 14.5V, according to the data sheet, otherwise the regulator will not function properly.

The peak voltage provided by the transformer is its RMS value multiplied by the square root of 2, or:


The minimum voltage we can have at the input of the regulator is:


This is the max value of ripple that we can sustain.

To calculate the capacitor necessary to obtain this ripple, we use the following formula:

capacitance calculation

where f is the frequency of the alternate current which, in the USA, is 60Hz, and Ix is the maximum current that the power supply needs to provide.

So, we would need a capacitance value, for C1 and C2, of 2358uF.

However, the Theremin circuit will really not draw 1.5A from the power supply, so we can stay a little conservative, and use the closest value below the calculated one, which is 2200uF.

At this point we can safely say that the voltage on the output of the regulators will be exactly 12V (positive or negative, depending on the output side).

To further help the regulator, and preventing the current through it to go too close to the 1.5A threshold, where the regulator would not work anymore because the ripple becomes too high, we add to the output of each regulator another electrolytic capacitor, this one with a value at least equal to the capacitance value that we did not put at the input side. Since at the input side we put a capacitance of 2200uF instead of 2358uF, we will need a capacitor of at least 158uF.

However, to stay totally safe, I decided to use a capacitor at least 5 times higher, so I used the value of 1000uF for C3 and C4.

And finally, I added an extra capacitor (C5 and C6) to shunt toward ground any RF frequency that would travel back from the Theremin oscillators toward the power supply. A 0.1uF value is what is suggested by the data sheet of the regulator, so I used just that.

Why did I use this capacitor if there was already a 1000uF in there?

The reason hides in the way the electrolytic capacitors behave. In short, the electrolytic capacitors do not work well at high frequencies, so we need to add the extra 0.1uF capacitor, which is not an electrolytic one, to work in that range of frequencies. And since the range of frequencies is much higher than the one of the 110Vac outlet, a very small capacitance is enough to do the job.


Theremin v.1 Pitch Reference Oscillator Analysis

This is my first post of this kind, which I plan to use to give insights on how an electronic circuit is designed. In the future, I plan to post a similar article for every new circuit I design and present on my YouTube channel.

This way, people who are interested in such details can go to this site to get them, thus sparing all the others that don’t care from watching them on the original video.

Today, to get started with the new series of posts, I will go into the insights of the design of the Pitch Reference Oscillator used in the Theremin version 1.

I decided to use the Pitch Reference Oscillator because all the other Theremin’s oscillators are based on the same principle, although for the variable ones, an antenna is added to the resonant circuit to make its capacitance increase based on the position of the hand on the player with respect to the antenna. In fact, the antenna adds up to 8pF to the resonating tank, based on the position of the hand of the player.

For reference, you can watch any of the YouTube videos on my channel related to oscillators in the Theremin Project playlist.

Here is the link to the playlist:


I began the design of the oscillator starting from the base concept of positive feedback amplifier, which can be represented as follows:


We have an amplifier with a positive gain, which should be 1 when there is an oscillation, and we have a feedback impedance Zf that takes part of the output signal and brings it back to the input of the amplifier. Zf is supposed to be chosen to obtain a positive feedback at the oscillation frequency.

This basic configuration needs now to be modified to insert in it an LC resonating tank. This should be on the output of the amplifier, so its oscillations can be fed back to the input and be sustained with no decay.


The amplifier can now be replaced with a real circuit made with a transistor. I choose in this case a common base configuration, which gives me the required gain of almost 1, which is enough to sustain the oscillation.

The Zf will need to provide a phase shift of 90° to compensate for the internal capacitance of the transistor, which will add another 90° for a total of 180°, thus providing a positive feedback, considering that the transistor has actually a negative value of amplification (-1).

Therefore, Zf can be replaced with a simple capacitor that will bring the output signal back to the input with the desired 90° phase shift.

And once all the polarization resistors are added, the circuit looks like the following:


In this circuit, R2, R3, R4 and R5 are the polarization resistors, which are calculated based on the specs of the transistor itself.

L1, C4, C6, C7 constitute the resonating tank. The Two variable capacitors are added to allow for a fine tune of the frequency.

C5 is the feedback impedance, or Zf.

The resonating frequency is calculated based on the following formula:


where L = L1, and C = C4//C6//C7//CBE = C4 + C6 + C7 + CBE

and CBE is the capacitance between emitter and base.

Temporarily excluding CBE from the calculations, the frequency therefore can vary between 258.2 kHz and 312 kHz. The CBE can be obtained from the transistor data sheet, adjusting for the polarization between base and emitter.

Also, we can slightly affect the resonating frequency of the oscillator by changing the polarization point of the transistor. This can be achieved by a potentiometer added on the base of the transistor itself, as per the following schematic.

final schematic

All the other capacitors in the schematic are used to make the polarization point of the transistor independent from the oscillation frequency, by shunting the oscillation signal toward ground. Thus, their value is such that they behave like conductors with respect to the high frequency of the oscillator.

At the end, considering the increase in capacity given by CBE, the frequency ends up to be centered around 400kHz, which was the required frequency for the pitch reference oscillator.