Thyristors or silicon controlled rectifiers (SCR) as they are sometimes known may appear to be unusual electronics components in many ways, but they are particularly useful for controlling power circuits.
As such these electronics components are used for many power control applications, often where current and voltage levels are relatively high. Thyristors may also be used in lower power applications including light control, as well as for power supply protection and many other applications. Thyristors are simple to use and cheap to buy, making them an ideal option for many circuits.
The idea for the thyristor is not new. The idea for the device was first put forward in 1950 by William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor. Although some later investigation of the device was undertaken by others a couple of years later, it was not until the early 1960s when they became available. After the introduction of the thyristor, they soon became popular for electronic switching and power supply circuits.
What is a thyristor?
The thyristor may be considered a rather an unusual form of electronics component because it consists of four layers of differently doped silicon rather than the three layers of the conventional bipolar transistors.
Whereas conventional bipolar transistors may have a p-n-p or n-p-n structure with the electrodes named collector, base and emitter, the thyristor has a p-n-p-n structure with the outer layers with their electrodes referred to as the anode (n-type) and the cathode (p-type). The control terminal of the SCR is named the gate and it is connected to the p-type layer that adjoins the cathode layer.
Thyristors are usually manufactured from silicon, although, in theory other types of semiconductor could be used. The first reason for using silicon for thyistors is that silicon is the ideal choice because of its overall properties. It is able to handle the voltage and currents required for high power applications. Additionally it has good thermal properties. The second major reason is that silicon technology is well established and it is widely used for a variety of semiconductor devices. As a result it is very cheap and easy for semiconductor manufacturers to use for their electronic components.
Thyristors, or silicon controlled rectifiers, SCRs are used in many areas of electronics where they find uses in a variety of different applications. Some of the more common applications for them are outlined below:
AC power control (including lights, motors,etc).
AC power electronic switching.
Overvoltage protection crowbar for power supplies.
Control elements in phase angle triggered controllers.
Within photographic flash lights where they act as the electronic switch to discharge a stored voltage through the flash lamp, and then cut it off at the required time.
Thyristors are able to switch high voltages and withstand reverse voltages making them ideal for electronic switching applications, especially within AC scenarios.
Thyristor symbols & basics
The thyristor or silicon controlled rectifier, SCR is a semiconductor device that has a number of unusual characteristics. It has three terminals: Anode, cathode and gate, reflecting thermionic valve / vacuum tube technology. As might be expected the gate is the control terminal while the main current flows between the anode and cathode.
As can be imagined from its circuit symbol shown below, the device is a "one way device" giving rise to the GE name of silicon controlled rectifier. Therefore when the device is used with AC, it will only conduct for a maximum of half the cycle.
The silicon controlled rectifier, SCR or thyristor symbol used for circuit diagrams or circuit seeks to emphasis its rectifier characteristics while also showing the control gate. As a result the thyristor symbol shows the traditional diode symbol with a control gate entering near the junction.