Introduction: SCR (Silicon-Controlled Rectifie)

Picture of SCR (Silicon-Controlled Rectifie)

If an SCR's gate is left floating (disconnected), it behaves exactly as a Shockley diode. It may be latched by breakover voltage or by exceeding the critical rate of voltage rise between anode and cathode, just as with the Shockley diode. Dropout is accomplished by reducing current until one or both internal transistors fall into cutoff mode, also like the Shockley diode. However, because the gate terminal connects directly to the base of the lower transistor, it may be used as an alternative means to latch the SCR. By applying a small voltage between gate and cathode, the lower transistor will be forced on by the resulting base current, which will cause the upper transistor to conduct, which then supplies the lower transistor's base with current so that it no longer needs to be activated by a gate voltage. The necessary gate current to initiate latch-up, of course, will be much lower than the current through the SCR from cathode to anode, so the SCR does achieve a measure of amplification.



This method of securing SCR conduction is called triggering, and it is by far the most common way that SCRs are latched in actual practice. In fact, SCRs are usually chosen so that their breakover voltage is far beyond the greatest voltage expected to be experienced from the power source, so that it can be turned on only by an intentional voltage pulse applied to the gate.

It should be mentioned that SCRs may sometimes be turned off by directly shorting their gate and cathode terminals together, or by "reverse-triggering" the gate with a negative voltage (in reference to the cathode), so that the lower transistor is forced into cutoff. I say this is "sometimes" possible because it involves shunting all of the upper transistor's collector current past the lower transistor's base. This current may be substantial, making triggered shut-off of an SCR difficult at best. A variation of the SCR, called a Gate-Turn-Off thyristor, or GTO, makes this task easier. But even with a GTO, the gate current required to turn it off may be as much as 20% of the anode (load) current! The schematic symbol for a GTO is shown in Figure 1.



The Gate Turn-Off thyristor (GTO)

SCRs and GTOs share the same equivalent schematics (two transistors connected in a positive-feedback fashion), the only differences being details of construction designed to grant the NPN transistor a greater β than the PNP. This allows a smaller gate current (forward or reverse) to exert a greater degree of control over conduction from cathode to anode, with the PNP transistor's latched state being more dependent upon the NPN's than vice versa. The Gate-Turn-Off thyristor is also known by the name of Gate-Controlled Switch, or GCS.

A rudimentary test of SCR function, or at least terminal identification, may be performed with an ohmmeter. Because the internal connection between gate and cathode is a single PN junction, a meter should indicate continuity between these terminals with the red test lead on the gate and the black test lead on the cathode like this (fig 2)

Rudimentary test of SCR

All other continuity measurements performed on an SCR will show "open" ("OL" on some digital multimeter displays). It must be understood that this test is very crude and does not constitute a comprehensive assessment of the SCR. It is possible for an SCR to give good ohmmeter indications and still be defective. Ultimately, the only way to test an SCR is to subject it to a load current.

If you are using a multimeter with a "diode check" function, the gate-to-cathode junction voltage indication you get may or may not correspond to what's expected of a silicon PN junction (approximately 0.7 volts). In some cases, you will read a much lower junction voltage: mere hundredths of a volt. This is due to an internal resistor connected between the gate and cathode incorporated within some SCRs. This resistor is added to make the SCR less susceptible to false triggering by spurious voltage spikes, from circuit "noise" or from static electric discharge. In other words, having a resistor connected across the gate-cathode junction requires that a strong triggering signal (substantial current) be applied to latch the SCR. This feature is often found in larger SCRs, not on small SCRs. Bear in mind that an SCR with an internal resistor connected between gate and cathode will indicate continuity in both directions between those two terminals: (Figure  3)

SCR testing circuit

Actuating the normally-open "on" pushbutton switch connects the gate to the anode, allowing current from the negative terminal of the battery, through the cathode-gate PN junction, through the switch, through the load resistor, and back to the battery. This gate current should force the SCR to latch on, allowing current to go directly from cathode to anode without further triggering through the gate. When the "on" pushbutton is released, the load should remain energized.

Pushing the normally-closed "off" pushbutton switch breaks the circuit, forcing current through the SCR to halt, thus forcing it to turn off (low-current dropout).

If the SCR fails to latch, the problem may be with the load and not the SCR. A certain minimum amount of load current is required to hold the SCR latched in the "on" state. This minimum current level is called the holding current. A load with too great a resistance value may not draw enough current to keep an SCR latched when gate current ceases, thus giving the false impression of a bad (unlatchable) SCR in the test circuit. Holding current values for different SCRs should be available from the manufacturers. Typical holding current values range from 1 milliamp to 50 milliamps or more for larger units.

For the test to be fully comprehensive, more than the triggering action needs to be tested. The forward breakover voltage limit of the SCR could be tested by increasing the DC voltage supply (with no pushbuttons actuated) until the SCR latches all on its own. Beware that a breakover test may require very high voltage: many power SCRs have breakover voltage ratings of 600 volts or more! Also, if a pulse voltage generator is available, the critical rate of voltage rise for the SCR could be tested in the same way: subject it to pulsing supply voltages of different V/time rates with no pushbutton switches actuated and see when it latches.

In this simple form, the SCR test circuit could suffice as a start/stop control circuit for a DC motor, lamp, or other practical load: (Figure  5)


DC motor start/stop control circuit

Another practical use for the SCR in a DC circuit is as a crowbar device for overvoltage protection. A "crowbar" circuit consists of an SCR placed in parallel with the output of a DC power supply, for placing a direct short-circuit on the output of that supply to prevent excessive voltage from reaching the load. Damage to the SCR and power supply is prevented by the judicious placement of a fuse or substantial series resistance ahead of the SCR to limit short-circuit current: (Figure  6)


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