Zener diode is a type of diode that allows current to flow not only from its anode to its cathode, but also in the reverse direction, when the voltage across its terminals exceeds the Zener voltage, a characteristic of the device. This effect is known as the Zener effect, after Clarence Zener, who first described the phenomenon.
Zener diodes have a highly doped p–n junction. Normal diodes break down with a reverse voltage, but the voltage and sharpness of the knee are not as well defined as for a Zener diode. Normal diodes are not designed to operate in the breakdown region, whereas Zener diodes operate reliably in this region.
Zener reverse breakdown is due to electron quantum tunnelling caused by a high-strength electric field. However, many diodes described as "Zener" diodes rely instead on avalanche breakdown. Both breakdown types are used 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.