Electronic Components

This page covers just a few of the hundreds of electronic components that can be added to a circuit.


Semiconductive elements, called resistors, have more resistance than a metal wire, but still much less resistance than an insulator, like air or plastic.

Resistors are added to a circuit for precise control over current. If the current is too high, the circuit will get hot. If the current is too low the circuit can't do its job.

The IEC symbol for a resistor is this rectangle.

The American representation of a resistor is this squiggle, which I use because I like the way it looks.


A diode only allows current in one direction.


In circuit diagrams a diode is represented by a triangle pointing at a line. Because diodes only allow current in one direction you have to draw them with the triangle pointing with the current.

Light Emitting Diode

A Light Emitting Diode is an efficient circuit element that produces light. LEDs are a diode. This means they only allows current to flow in one direction.

Like resistors, LEDs have resistance and cause a voltage drop.

An LED's resistance decreases with temperature. This can lead to a positive feedback loop, called thermal runaway. Thermal runaway is when a small temperature increase lowers resistance, and the lower resistance leads to increased current which leads to more temperature increases.

An LED is drawn as a diode with arrows.

R = ? 1.5 V 1.5 V Example: How much resistance is needed to safely light the red LED?
LED specs

  • 5 mm diameter
  • 660 nm wavelength
  • 1.85-2.5 V Forward Voltage
  • 20 mA current
  • 250 mcd typical brightness
  • datasheet
  • strategy

    The Voltage across the LED can be between 1.85 and 2.5 Volts. Set a safe target in the middle at 2.1 V.

    Use Kirchoff's voltage law to find the voltage drop across the resistor.

    Use the voltage across the resistor to predict the resistance that will yield 20 mA of current with Ohm's law.

    solution $$0 = V_{\mathrm{bat1}} +V_{\mathrm{bat2}}+ V_{R}+V_{\mathrm{LED}}$$ $$0 = 1.5\,\mathrm{V}+1.5\,\mathrm{V}+ V_{R}-2.1\,\mathrm{V}$$ $$V_{R} = -0.9\,\mathrm{V}$$
    $$V=IR$$ $$R = \frac{V}{I}$$ $$R = \frac{0.9\,\mathrm{V}}{0.020 \,\mathrm{A}}$$ $$R = 45 \,\Omega$$

    Example: How much power is used by the circuit when the LED is lit?

    We can find the total power used by focusing on the batteries.

    $$P=IV$$ $$P=(0.020 \,\mathrm{A})(3.0 \,\mathrm{V})$$ $$P=0.060 \,\mathrm{W}$$

    Question: Why couldn't we use one 1.5 V battery to turn on this LED?

    The LED requires a voltage drop of at least 1.85 V.

    One 1.5 V Battery doesn't have enough voltage.

    R = ? 9 V Example: What resistor should we use with a 9 volt battery and this white LED?
    LED specs

  • ultra white 6000 Kelvin emitted color temperature
  • typical forward voltage 3.2 V
  • max forward voltage 3.8 V
  • forward current 350 mA
  • LED Junction Temperature 120 C
  • viewing angle 140º
  • datasheet
  • solution $$0 = V_{\mathrm{bat1}} + V_{R} + V_{\mathrm{LED}}$$ $$0 = 9\,\mathrm{V} + V_{R} - 3.2\,\mathrm{V}$$ $$V_{R} = -5.8\,\mathrm{V}$$
    $$V=IR$$ $$R = \frac{V}{I}$$ $$R = \frac{5.8\,\mathrm{V}}{0.350 \,\mathrm{A}}$$ $$R = 16.6 \,\Omega$$
    Example: What if we need to light up the LED, but we only have 100 Ω resistors. How can we get a resistance near 16 Ω?

    We need to wire the resistors in parallel. As we add more resistors in parallel the equivalent resistance will drop.

    R1 R2 R3 $$\frac{1}{R_{eq}} = \frac{1}{R_{1}}+\frac{1}{R_{2}}+ \frac{1}{R_{3}}+\cdots$$

    Let's try 3 resistors in parallel.

    $$\frac{1}{R_{eq}} = \frac{1}{100}+\frac{1}{100}+ \frac{1}{100}$$ $$\frac{1}{R_{eq}} = \frac{3}{100}$$ $$R_{eq} = \frac{100}{3}$$ $$R_{eq} = 33 \, \mathrm{\Omega}$$

    Thats not enough resistance. Let's add more resistors until we get near 16 Ω

    $$R_{eq} = \frac{100}{3} = 33 \, \mathrm{\Omega}$$ $$R_{eq} = \frac{100}{4} = 25 \, \mathrm{\Omega}$$ $$R_{eq} = \frac{100}{5} = 20 \, \mathrm{\Omega}$$
    $$R_{eq} = \frac{100}{6} = 16.7 \, \mathrm{\Omega}$$ $$R_{eq} = \frac{100}{7} = 14.2 \, \mathrm{\Omega}$$ $$R_{eq} = \frac{100}{8} = 12.5 \, \mathrm{\Omega}$$

    Six 100 Ω resistors in parallel are equivalent to 16.7 Ω.


    Transistors are used to increase, decrease, or stop electrical current. Like diodes and solar panels, they are made of different layers of doped silicon.

    A transistor can function as an on/off switch. Current through the transistor can be set to on or off by the voltage of a third terminal. Transistors acting as switches form the logic gates used in computer processors.

    Transistors are also used to boost an electrical signal. They can increase the volume of a speaker, or boost the radio signal coming from a cell phone.

    B E C

    Pictured above is a bipolar junction transistor. It has 3 terminals called the base, collector, and emitter. Voltage at the base terminal controls the flow of charge between the emitter and the collector terminal.

    Logic Gate

    Logic gates perform basic logical operations. They can be produced from a composite of elements like diodes or transistors acting like switches.

    A NOT gate takes in a voltage and outputs the opposite voltage.

    Input Output
    1 0
    0 1

    An AND gate takes in two voltages and outputs one. If input A and input B both have high voltage, then the output will also have high voltage.

    Input A Input B Output
    1 1 1
    0 1 0
    1 0 0
    0 0 0

    An OR gate takes in two voltages and outputs one. If input A, input B, or both have high voltage, then the output will also have high voltage.

    Input A Input B Output
    1 1 1
    0 1 1
    1 0 1
    0 0 0

    An XOR gate takes in two voltages and outputs one. If either input A or input B have high voltage, then the output will also have high voltage.

    Input A Input B Output
    1 1 0
    0 1 1
    1 0 1
    0 0 0
    Example: Both inputs for an AND gate are high. What does it output?
    Input A Input B Output
    1 1 ?

    The output is high when input A AND input B is high.

    Input A Input B Output
    1 1 1
    Example: For an OR gate one input is high and the other is low. What does it output?

    The output is high.

    A B S C

    Multiple logic circuits can be linked together to perform more complex operations. The diagram above is for a half adder that can output the sum of two single digit binary numbers.

    A B Cin C out S

    A full adder adds two binary numbers to a previous number. A full adder can be chained to other full adders to add binary numbers with multiple digits.

    Q Q R S E

    A flip-flop can be in two stable states. They are used to store binary values during a calculation.

    Integrated Circuit

    Integrated circuits are made by etching patterns in silicon wafers. These patterns form transistors and other electronic components. Transistors are linked to produce logic gates directly on the silicon.

    Microprocessors are complex integrated circuits that perform logic and math operations. Data stored in memory is loaded at the terminals on the edge of the chip as high or low voltage. The chip performs different operations based on the imputed voltages from the memory.

    Because of improvements in manufacturing, the density of integrated circuits has doubled about every 16-24 months. This trend, called Moore's law, led to smaller processors with more transistors and lower energy consumption. Moore's law, and other miniaturization trends, have successfully predicted the exponential increase in computing power starting in the 1970s.

    In 2023, production began on 3 nm scale computer chips. The distance between transistors in these chips is about 40 nm. This is nearing the 0.5 nm lattice spacing between the silicon atoms in the chip. At this scale quantum effects are starting to cause problems. For example, electrons have a chance to quantum tunnel to other parts of the circuit. These quantum problems could mean that integrated circuits will reach a limit in size, cost, and energy use.