Thyristors are a class of semiconductor components exhibiting hysteresis, that property whereby a system fails to return to its original state after some cause of state change has been removed. A very simple example of hysteresis is the mechanical action of a toggle switch: when the lever is pushed, it flips to one of two extreme states (positions) and will remain there even after the source of motion is removed (after you remove your hand from the switch lever). To illustrate the absence of hysteresis, consider the action of a “momentary” pushbutton switch, which returns to its original state after the button is no longer pressed: when the stimulus is removed (your hand), the system (switch) immediately and fully returns to its prior state with no “latching” behavior.
Bipolar, junction field-effect, and insulated gate field-effect transistors are all non-hysteric devices. That is, these do not inherently “latch” into a state after being stimulated by a voltage or current signal. For any given input signal at any given time, a transistor will exhibit a predictable output response as defined by its characteristic curve. Thyristors, on the other hand, are semiconductor devices that tend to stay “on” once turned on, and tend to stay “off” once turned off. A momentary event is able to flip these devices into either their on or off states where they will remain that way on their own, even after the cause of the state change has been taken away. As such, these are useful only as on/off switching devices—much like a toggle switch—and cannot be used as analog signal amplifiers.
Thyristors are constructed using the same technology as bipolar junction transistors, and in fact may be analyzed as circuits comprised of transistor pairs. How then, can a hysteric device (a thyristor) be made from non-hysteric devices (transistors)? The answer to this question is positive feedback, also known as regenerative feedback. As you should recall, feedback is the condition where a percentage of the output signal is “fed back” to the input of an amplifying device. Negative, or degenerative, feedback results in a diminishing of voltage gain with increases in stability, linearity, and bandwidth. Positive feedback, on the other hand, results in a kind of instability where the amplifier’s output tends to “saturate.” In the case of thyristors, this saturating tendency equates to the device “wanting” to stay on once turned on, and off once turned off.
In this chapter we will explore several different kinds of thyristors, most of which stem from a single, basic two-transistor core circuit. Before we do that, though, it would be beneficial to study the technological predecessor to thyristors: gas discharge tubes.