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Disclaimer: I'm a total beginner here.

As explained in other answers here, current in a circuit doesn't flow from negative to positive and the direction doesn't matter.

So what should I make of diodes, which are supposed to make the current flow only in one direction?

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To get a better understanding, you need to get a semiconductor physics book or something like Sedra and Smith's Microelectronic circuits. It has a nice explanation and models as well as relevant circuits. –  Gustavo Litovsky Dec 29 '12 at 2:24
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I think you are misunderstanding the previous question. Several of the answers don't strictly respond to the question that was asked. @sharptooth's answer is the one that most closely sticks to the point of whether the direction of current flow matters and whether the arrangement of components relative to that flow matters. –  The Photon Dec 29 '12 at 2:37
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The other question is about the fact that current flows in complete circuits --- there is no current without a complete loop for current to flow through. Some of the answers went off on a tangent discussing the difference between electron current and conventional current. In circuit design, you can safely ignore electron current, and always think in terms of conventional current. But the direction of current flow absolutely does matter.

As for diodes, ideally, a diode allows current to flow through it in only one direction, from anode to cathode. Specifically, above a certain "threshold" voltage, it only requires a very small increase in voltage to increase the current to astronomical levels:

enter image description here

(CC image from openwetware.org)

The reverse breakdown behavior (large reverse current when high reverse bias is applied) is normally considered a non-ideality rather than part of the ideal diode behavior.

Some diodes have other effects, such as LEDs, which emit light when current flows through them; or zener diodes which are normally used in the reverse breakdown region.

Edit

what's the purpose of including a garden-variety diode (not an LED) in a circuit?

Typically, you use them when you want to be sure current can only flow in one direction. For example,

  • To protect a circuit from a battery installed in reverse.
  • To form a full-bridge rectifier circuit (using 4 diodes) to convert AC power to DC.
  • In a peak detector circuit.

In circuits using ac signals, proper manipulation of the dc bias point of a diode allows it to be used as a switch to route those signals.

You might also see a diode used in cases where the designer knows that current will be flowing in the proper direction to create a rough-and-ready "fixed" voltage drop of about 0.7 V.

Another use is to use a (properly designed) diode's ability to sink large amounts of current (in the forward direction) to protect more sensitive circuits from overload or ESD conditions, or in a snubber circuit to reduce transmission line ring.

Another use is that, going beyond the dc properties, a diode in reverse bias has a variable capacitance depending on the magnitude of the bias. This variable capacitance can be used to tune oscillators or filters. Diodes specially designed for this use are called varicaps.

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The curve shown is not quite right. The whole curve should be shifted down with the knee on the RHS in the 4th quadrant which is the regime in which PV cells operate. –  placeholder Dec 29 '12 at 8:07
    
@rawbrawb, That can't be right. Operation in the 4th quadrant implies the component is delivering power to the rest of the circuit, which diodes don't do. Except of course photodiodes (and maybe PV cells), when they have optical power applied to them. –  The Photon Dec 29 '12 at 15:20
    
THat is correct, in the 4th quadrant it does deliver power. And you are also correct in that the curve shifts down with applied light. I'm just so used to looking at these curves with applied light I forgot about the curve shift. –  placeholder Dec 29 '12 at 15:22
    
Thanks, @ThePhoton. But what's the purpose of including a garden-variety diode (not an LED) in a circuit? –  Bill Jan 3 '13 at 16:16
    
Thanks for the detailed answer! –  Bill Jan 7 '13 at 19:38
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For a beginner, the basic answer is that a diode is a one way valve for current. Of course none of them are perfect. There will still be a little bit of pressure (voltage) accross the valve even when current is flowing in the forward direction, and there is some amount of backwards pressure (reverse voltage) at which the thing breaks, but "one way valve for current" is most of what you need to know to get started.

After you get into this a bit more, then go back and look at Photon's answer and see all the nasty little details of real diodes. For now though, I think that will confuse more than illuminate.

One way valves for current are useful in a variety of circumstances. One obvious one is to make a DC power supply from AC.

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