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I have searched already for this question, but everywhere I see debate instead of clear answer. Though it is not that important of a matter whether we call it a voltage controlled device or current controlled device. I believe it can be called both voltage controlled or current controlled depending on the situation. Still I believe it requires a little clarification. Which part it really is in view of the core operating principle?

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    \$\begingroup\$ In normal situations (no superconducting) there can be no current without voltage, and vice versa. That said, IMO the current-amplifying model is more useful in most situations. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 31, 2013 at 6:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WoutervanOoijen Good point. Though, superconductors still have inductance, so still there must be voltage to have current. Once you have current, voltage may go to zero, but you need some voltage to get it there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Phil Frost
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 10:45

8 Answers 8

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The answer depends on your perspective.

A physicist might say that the fundamental action in a BJT is that an electric field across the base-emitter junction decreases the width of the depletion zone. It is this electric field, measured in volts, that controls the movement of charge carriers. Therefore the BJT is voltage controlled.

An electronic engineer might say that the most useful model for a specific circuit design is the current-amplifier model.

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So called "common emitter current gain" is a range not a constant. Good designs don't depend on it.

Short answer: the Ebers-Moll model gives a relationship between the collector current and the base-emitter voltage. So you can view the base-emitter voltage as being controlled by the collector current or as the collector current being controlled by the base-emitter voltage.

Many people make the incorrect claim that there is a useful relationship between the base current and the collector current, and thus mistakenly claim that a transistor is a "current controlled current source." A transistor is not a current-controlled current source.

Long answer:

The confusion about whether a BJT is current controlled or voltage controlled comes from two sources. The first is that the equations we use in describing electric circuits are not definitions of one variable in terms of several others. Rather they are describing a constraint between several variables. Take Ohm's law: \$V = IR\$. This is not a definition of voltage. Nor is \$I=V/R\$ a definition of current or \$R=V/I\$ a definition of resistance. Rather it says that in any circuit (involving an ohmic device) this equality will always hold. No matter how we change the current, the voltage will always stay proportional to the current. No matter how we change the voltage the current will always stay proportional to the voltage. (True story: I once received a resume from a gentleman who listed as one of his qualifications that he knew, and could use, Ohm's law "in all three forms.")

The most important constraints in describing how a transistor works within a circuit are the Schockley diode equations used in the Ebers-Moll model. In the active mode this results in the constraint that: $$ I_E = I_{ES} (e^{V_{BE}/V_T} - 1) $$

where \$I_{ES}\$ is a constant that describes the transistor, and \$V_T\$ is the thermal voltage (about 26mV at room temperature). So this is describing a relationship (constraint) between the emitter current, \$I_E\$, and the voltage between base and emitter, \$V_{BE}\$. Yes, the current is on the left hand side and the voltage is on the right hand side, but this is only because the \$-1\$ makes it a little difficult to write the other way around. In fact, when \$e^{V_{BE}/V_T}\gg 1\$ it is sometimes useful to write \$V_{BE}=\frac{1}{V_T} \log(I_E/I_{ES})\$.

Nonetheless, the physics behind the Ebers-Moll model, is usually thought of the way that @RedGrittyBrick describes it: the voltage between base and emitter controls the current of minority carriers into the base (given the relative dopings of emitter and base).

The second source of confusion comes from another statement that people make about transistors that is just completely false. This is a statement that a transistor has a well defined "common-emitter current gain", or \$h_{FE}\$. I will write this really large so people don't miss it:

A transistor has no (well defined) common-emitter current gain.

It is definitely the case that there is a flaw in bipolar junction transistors where there is always a leakage current through the base, but the leakage current is not well defined between a pair of the same type of transistors, nor is there any simple linear relationship that describes the base current in terms of the emitter current in a specific transistor. The current through the base is caused by a number of factors, like relative doping levels of the base and emitter and the width of the base, that are difficult to control during manufacturing. Let us take a look at the datasheet for the Fairchild PN2222. You will see that \$h_{FE}\$ is given as a range. It is somewhere between 100 and 300 (a factor of 3 difference !) when the collector current is 150mA. But \$h_{FE}\$ is not less than 35 when \$I_C\$ is at 0.1mA. Another factor of 3 different! So \$h_{FE}\$ is not like the measured resistance of a resitor. \$h_{FE}\$ is not a constant and is not a useful description of the transistor's gain.

When designing an amplifier the only thing you use \$h_{FE}\$ for is to decide whether the transistor's leakage current will be bearable for you or not. If the \$h_{FE}\$ is too low for your use case you'll either have to choose a different (probably more expensive) transistor, or replace the single transistor with a Darlington pair.

Now I will write this really large again so people don't miss it:

A good design never depends on \$\beta\$ (\$h_{FE}\$) having a particular value.

Try the following Wilson current mirror to see how you build a current-controlled current-source. Q3 is specifically included to reduce the dependence on \$\beta\$. I encourage you to change all the 2N3094s to 2N3055s (or to any of the other transistors that has a different \$\beta\$ than the 2N3094) to see that the output current is always about 2x the input current.

schematic

simulate this circuit – Schematic created using CircuitLab

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think your assumption about what "controlled by current" means is valid. I don't think it implies a linear relationship. On the other hand, I think this debate is pointless. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 16:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ R=V/I is a definition of resistance. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 18:50
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Please enjoy an answer in the form of rhetorical questions:

Does a current through a resistor cause a voltage across it, or does a voltage across a resistor cause a current?

Does a motor spin your car's wheels, or do the wheel resist the motor's spinning? Does shifting to a lower gear increase the engine torque at the wheels or does it reduce the resistance from the wheels at the engine?

Does a college education make your expected salary higher, or are successful people more likely to attend a college?

Did the decline in pirate population cause global warming or did global warming kill off the pirates?

Point is, an explanation of how a BJT is "controlled" is a fallacious attempt to assign a cause and effect relationship between voltage and current when really there's only a correlation (except unlike pirates and global warming, the correlation is very strong and observable). We can think of this correlation as cause and effect when it suits our needs, but it's only a model to help our reasoning in a particular case. Both explanations (a BJT is voltage controlled / current controlled) are valid models, each appropriate in a different context.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Or to paraphrase - what came first - the electric field chicken or the charged egg - lol \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 31, 2013 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ When people say "a transistor is a current-controlled current-source" they are making a claim that there is a useful linear correlation between \$I_B\$ and \$I_C\$. Is there? @jippie claims yes. My answer claims not. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 31, 2013 at 16:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ All of us agree that Ebers-Moll says there is a useful correlation between \$I_E\$ and \$V_{BE}\$ and that it doesn't matter whether you view that relationship as a current-controlled voltage-source or a voltage-controlled current-source. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 31, 2013 at 17:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WanderingLogic well, your answer says very strongly that \$\beta\$ varies quite a lot, so good designs aren't sensitive to those variations. And, thinking of a BJT as a current controlled current source is only an approximation. But, even though the parameters of the correlation (\$\beta\$) are variable over a wide range, and the correlation is an approximation, the correlation is still there, and the approximation is good enough for many applications, and thus it's still a perfectly valid model. \$\endgroup\$
    – Phil Frost
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 17:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WanderingLogic everyone knows that. Just because \$\beta\$ varies by frequency and manufacturing variation and temperature doesn't mean the whole correlation is invalid or useless. \$\endgroup\$
    – Phil Frost
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 17:17
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One of the most important formulas to describe a BJT is \$I_C = I_B × h_{FE}\$ , which clearly makes it a current controlled device.

On the other hand Ebers-Moll says: \$I_E = I_{ES} \left (e^{\frac{qV_{BE}}{kT}} - 1 \right)\$, where IES, q, k and T are constants and VBE is the "input voltage" between base and emitter, which would turn it into a voltage controlled device.

Usually for large signal analysis it is considered a current controlled device and for small signal analysis it is considered a voltage controlled device.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ We use this equation because we use bjt for current amplifier. We can always write this equation in terms of charge or voltage. I want explanation from the core, why it is current controlled. \$\endgroup\$
    – sakibmoon
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 6:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ A simple formula does not tell anything about cause and effect! The last sentence is - sorry - "garbage". Either the BJT is voltage controlled (correct!) or current-controlled (not correct), but this does not depend on our "considerations". \$\endgroup\$
    – LvW
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 8:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LvW feel free to write an answer that explains why several answers on this page are wrong in assuming a BJT current controlled in particular circumstances and correct in calling the device voltage controlled in others. I happily upvote a good explanation, like many others I am here to learn too. \$\endgroup\$
    – jippie
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 10:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jippie, sorry for being perhaps too "sloppy" ("garbage"), but we cannot "consider" the BJT sometimes current- and sometimes voltage-controlled. There is only one physical working principle. This was my point only. Moreover, this subject was intensively discussed in this and other forums already; therefore I didn`t intend to repeat all the arguments and justifications. OK? \$\endgroup\$
    – LvW
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 10:31
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It is true that you can't have current (movement of charge) without an electric field to move it (voltage) unless you have a superconducting material, which semi conductor is not. It is also true that you can have voltage without current such as the the voltage across a charged capacitor.

The input to the junction transistor is modeled on a diode. Consider what would happen if a 6V battery was directly connected to the base-emitter junction. This would cause a very large current to flow and destroyed the device.

Compare this to the gate-source junction of a MOSFET device - no damage would occur.

Any VOLTAGE signal used the junction transistor base circuit must be converted (or limited) to a current of suitable size using a resistor or other device.

Hence the junction transistor is a current controlled device that can be made to operate with an input voltage and external circuit components.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "It is also true that you can have voltage without current such as the the voltage across a charged capacitor." What about the leakage current? No current in the presence of a voltage would require perfect insulators, which I don't think exist, and certainly aren't orderable from Mouser. \$\endgroup\$
    – Phil Frost
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 18:27
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Consider an NPN transistor and it is forward biased so the positive terminal of the battery is connected with the emitter and negative terminal of the battery is connected to the collector terminal. The electrons present in the emitter will move towards base region some of them will diffuse in the base region and some of the will recombine in the collector region. as in the base region movement of charge carrier is because of the electrons which is minority charge carrier in the base region. So a BJT can said to be minority current controlled device.

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A junction BJT is voltage controlled device, period. All the above explanations that say otherwise are wrong and faulty. Let me explain why. First of all, discard all explanations using models. Models are useful for obtaining results, but they usually work with effects, not the cause. To really find out how a device works, you have to delve into the physics of the operation. In other words, you have to find the cause, not the effect.

OK, let's hook up a correctly biased NPN BJT and see what happens. The electrons travel from the emitter to the base by diffusion, where they are swept onward to the collector by the higher positive voltage. These electrons leave behind ions whose charge causes a back-voltage which neutralizes the diffusion voltage and inhibits the flow of electrons from the emitter. The voltage applied to the base reduces the back-voltage and expedites the electron flow from the emitter to the collector. That is why a BJT is voltage controlled. Without the forward base voltage, the back-voltage caused by the ions would choke off the flow of electrons to the collector. Because the voltage controls the current through diffusion, the output current is exponential instead on linear like it is for FETs and tubes.

Unfortunately not all the electrons make it to the collector. Some are attracted to the base circuit as waste current. Within a reasonable operating range, the collector current is somewhat proportional to the waste current. This proportion is called "beta". You can hook up a current source to the base and get come nice collector current curves. Then you might say, "A transistor is a current amplifier." If you do, you should be sued for libel. You don't have a single transistor anymore. You have a transistor CIRCUIT using the high resistance of the current source. The transistor itself still operates according to its Vbe. You would not call a a ordinary op-amp a current controlled device if you made it part of a current amplifier, would you?

If you want an example of a current controlled device, check out magnetic amplifiers. The Nazis used them extensively during World War II. Compared to solid state, they are big, ugly, and rugged.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ratch - Hi, As I commented in one of your previous (now deleted) answers, please stop adding your signature to your posts. Doing so is breaking this site rule. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – SamGibson
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 16:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ When your explanation talks about "swept onward to the collector by the higher positive voltage" aren't you also talking about a CIRCUIT instead of just the transistor? Doesn't your explanation depend on a MODEL of an electron as a charged particle? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 16:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, I did not assign a rule to the electrons external behavior and kept the discussion to the intrinsic physics of the transistor. No modeling was involved. All discussion was done assuming the natural behavior of the electrons. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ratch
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can't control the BJT with only voltage, if there isn't any current, you can't have the voltage either. Same way as you can't a voltage on a resistor if you don't allow the current to flow. The base current is needed for the voltage that is itself needed to allow the collector current. It turns out that the relation between the collector current and the base current have a more interesting relationship than Vbe to collector current. With limited base current, Vbe saturates earlier than with a higher base current. Both approaches are valid. \$\endgroup\$
    – le_top
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 21:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ That statement is false. You can have a voltage across two points with no current if the resistance is infinite. Using the phrase "current flow" means "charge flow flow" which is redundant and ridiculous. Instead say just "charghe flow", "current", "current is present" or "current exists", whichever is appropriate. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ratch
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 16:01
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Base current flows between base and emitter in the BJT to induce a larger current flow between emitter and collector. When no current flows between emitter and base only a leakage current, nearly completely unaffected by any input signal, flows between collector and emitter. This makes the BJT a current controlled device.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ ...to "induce"? A new physical law? This is a simple (and false) assertion without any justification. \$\endgroup\$
    – LvW
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 8:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is not the base current that causes an increase in collector current - the base current is just an annoying side effect. It is the electric field caused by the voltage on the base that causes the change in collector current. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 19:46

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