I do not understand why no current flows through my circuit.

This question seems closest to my problem, but I am still having issues. I have tried two different transistors to make sure the issue was not a damaged transistor and have triple-checked that the polarity in the circuit matches the polarity in the datasheet. Here is my schematic:


simulate this circuit – Schematic created using CircuitLab

As you can see, I have a voltage divider to bring my 18V power supply down to 12V (this was included in case it is causing problems). The 12V supply then connects to an LED package, then to a 2N3904 NPN transistor.

A 3.3V supply is hooked up to the base of the transistor.

I have checked the voltages at various places around the circuit and they seem correct, but no current seems to be flowing. I will admit, that I don't really understand how to read the 2N3904 datasheet so I can provide the correct energy to the base of the transistor.

I have verified that the simplified circuit below works correctly:


simulate this circuit


My difficulties were created primarily from me assuming I could approximate an LED network as a single LED with similar voltage/current characteristics. Brian Drummond pointed out that I couldn't do this because current draw from the LED network would lower the voltage coming out of my voltage divider, preventing the LED network from lighting.

Jim Fischer then pointed out that a voltage divider was probably not what I want to use in this particular application and provided some really great theoretical info.

Going forward, I'll redesign the circuit using a different power delivery mechanism.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What is the voltage drop across the LED at the rated current of 50 mA? From what I can see you aren't supplying 50 mA to the LED, maybe 5-10 mA at most based on the voltage divider alone. \$\endgroup\$ – Captainj2001 Jul 10 '16 at 18:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Check there is about +0.6 to +0.7V at the transistor's base. If not, report what you get. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Drummond Jul 10 '16 at 18:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ When I checked the transistor base, it was getting +0.8V. \$\endgroup\$ – vincent Jul 10 '16 at 18:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ When you jump the transistor, what is the forward voltage on the LED? \$\endgroup\$ – mkeith Jul 10 '16 at 18:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ When jumping the transistor, I get a forward voltage of 12V on the LED and the LED works. \$\endgroup\$ – vincent Jul 10 '16 at 18:41

Your "12 V, 50 mA LED" is actually a multi-component subcircuit—i.e., an LED and other circuit components;it is not simply an LED component. Without knowing the design of that subcircuit, you must resort to "other" design rules.

One suggestion would be to redesign the R1, R2, R3 voltage divider to be much "stiffer" than it is presently, so that when you tap off 50mA of current for the "LED" subcircuit, the voltage at the R1, R2 junction does not drop much below 12 VDC. The goal is to have the 50 mA current be no greater than 1% of the total current that's flowing through resistor R1—i.e., the current flowing through R1 should be approximately

$$ I_{R1}\: x\: 1\% =50\: mA \Rightarrow I_{R1}=\frac{50\: mA}{1\%}=5000\: mA = 5\: A $$

So, with Q1 OFF (LED's \$I_{F}\approx0A\$), and assuming we want R1=R2=R3, we have,

$$ 18V=(R1+R2+R3)(5A) = (3R)(5A) $$

$$ R=\frac{18V}{(3)(5A)}=1.2\: \Omega $$

With R1=R2=R2=1.2Ω, and with Q1 ON and 50 mA flowing through LED D1, the voltage at the R1, R2 junction should be about 11.96 Volts.

Now the focus switches to the correct biasing of transistor Q1. Specifically, the base resistor's value must be chosen to ensure Q1 saturates when 50 mA is flowing into Q1's collector. For the 2N3904 transistor, a good choice for the saturation beta is \$\beta_{sat}=10\$ (see the saturation curves in the 2N3904 datasheet).

$$ I_{C,sat} = \beta_{sat}\: I_{B} $$

$$ \Rightarrow I_{B}=\frac{I_{C,sat}}{\beta_{sat}}=\frac{50\: mA}{10}=5\:mA $$

From Ohm's law,

$$ R_{B}=\frac{3.3\: V-V_{BE,sat}}{I_{B,sat}}=\frac{3.3\: V-V_{BE,sat}}{5\: mA} $$

From the 2N3904 datasheet, \$V_{BE,sat}\approx0.85\: V\$ for \$I_{C}=50\: mA\$ when the junction temperature is \$25°C\$. So,

$$ R_{B}=\frac{3.3\: V-0.85\: V}{5\: mA}\approx 490\: \Omega $$

The closest 5% resistor values to this calculated result are 470 Ω and 510 Ω. I will choose the 510 Ω resistor, and do some tests to ensure Q1 does indeed saturate when it is ON. For an NPN transistor, the hallmark for saturation is,

$$ V_{E} < V_{B} > V_{C} $$

with each voltage measured relative to ground (the reference potential).

One final comment. I am guessing your "3.3 VDC" voltage source is simulating a logic HIGH output signal. The 3.3 V value is a "best case" logic HIGH output value (\$V_{OH,max}\$), and should not be used in the calculations shown above to determine the value of Q1's base resistor. Use instead the "worst case" output voltage for a logic HIGH output—i.e., use the minimum voltage for a logic HIGH output (\$V_{OH,min}\$). For example, if the microprocessor's datasheet says the minimum voltage for a logic HIGH output is \$V_{OH,min}=2\:V\$, then use 2 V and not 3.3 V in your calculations.

P.S. Given that the resistor divider R1, R2, R3 requires 5 A of current to be considered a sufficiently stiff voltage divider, this should be a clue that using a voltage divider like this is not the correct/best design choice. In other words, get rid of the voltage divider R1, R2, and R3 and redesign the circuit so that only about 50 mA of current is drawn from the 18 V power supply when Q1 turns ON.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Like a boss! The 3.3V is coming from my benchtop supply, so it should be pretty steady. Thanks for writing out all the theory - that's really helpful. What I've gathered from this is that I need to learn a lot more. What was the 1% rule thing you mentioned? Does that guideline have a name I can reference? I'll try to think a better current limiting design. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – vincent Jul 10 '16 at 20:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Search for "stiff voltage divider". This topic is usually discussed in conjunction with "voltage divider bias" for a BJT. For a "stuff" voltage divider, the midpoint output current typically ranges from 1% to 10% of the input current. For a "firm" voltage divider, the midpoint output current might range from 10% to 20% of the input current. Note that as the output current percentage increases, the voltage at the midpoint drops further away from the desired voltage. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Fischer Jul 10 '16 at 22:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ BIG HINT: If you remove R2 and R3, you can choose resistor R1's value so that with 50 mA of current flowing through R1 the voltage drop across R1 is 6 Volts--i.e., 18V (Power Supply) = 6V (across R1) + 12V (across D1 + Q1). \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Fischer Jul 10 '16 at 22:11

Suspicion : because we don't know what this LED is. (Datasheet for it might be useful).

If it is actually a network of LEDs - say 4 white LEDs (Vf=3V each) then it needs 12V to start turning on, and R1 to limit current to 12mA (6V/470R).

Then the voltage divider ensures the voltage cannot rise above 12V, but any attempt to turn on Q1 draws current from the voltage divider, lowering its voltage below 12V, and guaranteeing the LED will not illuminate.

If this is the case, then it is safe to increase R2,R3 or omit them altogether. Then, when the transistor is off, both ends of the LED are at 18V so there is no voltage across it, and it is off. When the transistor is on, there will be some small voltage across it (0.2V if it is in saturation), 12V across the LED, and 5.8V across R1 limiting the current to around 12mA.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hm. Okay, I see what you're saying. The LED is a single section from one of these: radioshack.com/products/… I tested that it draws 50mA from my benchtop supply at 12V. I'll try removing the voltage divider. \$\endgroup\$ – vincent Jul 10 '16 at 19:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ To the OP: Does a single section mean it has 3 individual LED's on it? That is what it looks like from the picture. \$\endgroup\$ – mkeith Jul 10 '16 at 19:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ It IS a network of LEDs (3 and a resistor, rather than 4). Look more carefully with the benchtop supply. A slight voltage change will give a large change in brightness and current. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Drummond Jul 10 '16 at 19:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is 3 LEDs w/ 2x 270 ohm resistors. Is there any easy way to make this work? My real goal is to test the transistor. I just thought the LEDs would be an easy way to see if its working. \$\endgroup\$ – vincent Jul 10 '16 at 19:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ I removed the voltage limiter, but no dice. Maybe I'll give on up this one for now and try again with a simpler LED load. Thanks for the help and patience! \$\endgroup\$ – vincent Jul 10 '16 at 19:35

You have to invert the LED. As it is, it is inversely polarized and off course, there will be no current.

By the way, there is no need for the divider. It is much simpler to put a single resistor in series with the LED to limit the current through it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry. That was a schematic error. I have fixed it. Thanks. If I jump the transistor in the circuit, the LED works. \$\endgroup\$ – vincent Jul 10 '16 at 18:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Start by making a much simpler circuit. 18V supply, series resistor and LED. Make it work and then we can see what happens with the circuit with the transistor \$\endgroup\$ – Claudio Avi Chami Jul 10 '16 at 18:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have added a simplified circuit that works. \$\endgroup\$ – vincent Jul 10 '16 at 18:26

To put the transistor into saturation at Ic=50mA, from the datasheet you need to supply about 5mA of base current. Also from the datasheet, Vbe(sat) = .95 V, so the base resistor should be (3.3-.95)/ 5m = 470 Ω. I think your base resistor may be too large.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the info about reading the datasheet. I definitely need to study more. Ensuring that the base receives 1V, does not light the LED. \$\endgroup\$ – vincent Jul 10 '16 at 18:53

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