I have read that photovoltaic cells and betavoltaic cells are examples of constant current sources.

How are they considered to be constant current sources? The current in a circuit depends upon the resistance and if photovoltaic cells and betavoltaic cells are connected to different types of resistors then won't they give out different currents for different resistors?

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Constant current sources, by nature, have variable voltage output. In general the output voltage will rise in proportion to the load resistance until some limit is met. This is known as the "compliance" of the current source. \$\endgroup\$
    – Transistor
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ So the voltage of the photovoltaic cell will vary according to the load to keep the current constant? How could that happen? \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 18:57
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Well why not? We're used to thinking of power sources as being constant voltage (more or less) but constant current sources are a thing too. I'll see if I can find enough info for an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Transistor
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 18:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ There is Rs and Rp in equivalent circuit of solar panel also that play an important role. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 19:07

3 Answers 3


Most power supplies people are used to using are constant voltage supplies. That means, they always (try to) supply the same voltage, no matter what the load is ("voltage regulation"). If you have a 5V supply, and attach a 1K resistor to it, then it will put 5V of potential across the resistor, and that will result in 5 mA of current flowing through it. If you attach a 100 ohm resistor, it will still put the same 5V of potential across it, and there will be 50 mA of current instead.

However, every power supply has a limit to how much current it can actually supply. If the load tries to pull too much current (assuming something doesn't just go "poof" somewhere), generally what will happen is that the power supply won't actually be able to maintain the voltage level it's supposed to any more, and the voltage will drop (so it might only supply 4V or 3V instead of the 5V it's supposed to). Essentially, the voltage will drop as much as is necessary until the resulting amount of current being drawn isn't more than what the supply can provide.

And at this point, our "constant voltage" (voltage stays the same, current may vary) supply is actually functioning like a "constant current" (current stays the same, voltage may vary) supply instead. Most power supplies aren't designed to function in this mode, though, and doing so can cause things to fail or other weird behaviors. However, it is possible to design (or discover) power sources which do operate just fine in this mode instead, which can sometimes actually be useful.

So imagine a supply that has a maximum current it can supply of say, 50 mA, but it has no voltage regulation at all (so its voltage can go very high). If you don't connect anything to the output, there's nothing to cause any current flowing, so the voltage between the output pins might actually go up to hundreds of volts or more (but for now let's just say it tops out at 100V, for the sake of example).

But what happens when you connect something to it, like say a 100 ohm resistor? Well, initially, there will be, 100V across 100 ohms, so that would be a current of 1 A. But the supply can't physically provide 1 A of power, it can only do 50 mA, so that's just not gonna happen. So the voltage immediately drops instead: 50V? That's 500 mA, still too much, so it keeps dropping. 10V (100 mA)? Nope, still dropping. 5V? Hey, now we're at 50 mA, and we can actually supply that, so the power supply stabilizes at that point, and only provides a voltage of 5V to the load.

(This all happens very very quickly, so it's not something you would usually see, unless you were looking at it on an oscilloscope, etc, but it is basically exactly what happens with constant current supplies.)

If the load changes to, say, 200 ohms, well, then the power supply won't be being "pulled down" as much, so the voltage will naturally rise, and it can "bounce back" up to 10V instead (which balances out again at 50 mA, the same current as before, and everybody's happy).

Photovoltaic / betavoltaic cells basically work exactly the same way (except it's a natural property of the material/process, not something that was designed into it). They can potentially actually supply very high (static) voltages, but the moment that current starts flowing, the voltage they supply will drop until the current is at a level they can support, and they will naturally balance out at maintaining only the voltage which keeps that level of current flowing (whatever voltage that happens to be).


photovoltaic cells and betavoltaic cells are examples of constant current sources.

Well, they're not: the current varies with the load resistance.

In a true current source, the current is constant regardless of load resistance.

True constant-current sources are extremely rare. Radioactive materials that generate beta particles are a true current source. Other than that, not much else is.

Examples of "not-really" current sources:

  • The photoelectric effect in a vacuum tube is nearly a current source.
  • Any electronic circuit that is a "current source" is actually a current-limited voltage source.
  • A semiconductor exposed to light is almost a voltage source with series resistance, but not quite. That is why, as you correctly pointed out, the output voltage depends on the load resistor in a non-linear way. If it were a current source, at a given light level, the voltage would be proportional to the resistance.
  • A betavoltaic cell is not a true current source: note how the voltage is not linearly dependent on load resistance.
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Constant current linear regulators are another good example. They're not truly constant current since they can only drop voltage provided by some other source, but a mains powered lightbulb might have a regulator powered by over 300v. That's a pretty good approximation for most things. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 21:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you please explain why and how radioactive elements can be a constant current source? \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 7:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Because, averaged over a medium time, it emits electrons or positrons at a constant rate, no matter what. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 12:33

A good model for a solar cell is a current source in parallel with a diode:


simulate this circuit – Schematic created using CircuitLab

The diode represents the physical structure of the cell, and defines its electrical characteristics when it is dark. But when photons of light interact with atoms in the depletion region of the diode, they form electron-hole pairs, which are quickly separated by the electrical field that exists there. Electrons build up on one side relative to the other. This creates the external potential we see at the terminals. The magnitude of the current is more or less directly proportional to the light intensity.

However, once this potential rises high enough (\$V_{OC}\$ of the cell), it overcomes the forward voltage of the diode junction and a reverse current flows through the junction to balance the current being generated by the light. If an external load is connected across the cell, some of this current will be diverted and flow through the load. The voltage across the diode will drop until it only passes the remaining current. If a short is placed across the cell, all of the current will pass through the short (\$I_{SC}\$).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Any current regulator can also be thought of as constant current source? Like Led driver? \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 15:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think Foogod has already answered that part of your question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave Tweed
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 16:22

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