The most common function of a diode is to allow an electric current to pass in one direction (called the diode's forward direction), while blocking it in the opposite direction (the reverse direction). As such, the diode can be viewed as an electronic version of a check valve. This unidirectional behavior is called rectification, and is used to convert alternating current (ac) to direct current (dc). Forms of rectifiers, diodes can be used for such tasks as extracting modulation from radio signals in radio receivers.
However, diodes can have more complicated behavior than this simple on–off action, because of their nonlinear current-voltage characteristics. Semiconductor diodes begin conducting electricity only if a certain threshold voltage or cut-in voltage is present in the forward direction (a state in which the diode is said to be forward-biased). The voltage drop across a forward-biased diode varies only a little with the current, and is a function of temperature; this effect can be used as a temperature sensor or as a voltage reference. Also, diodes' high resistance to current flowing in the reverse direction suddenly drops to a low resistance when the reverse voltage across the diode reaches a value called the breakdown voltage.
A semiconductor diode's current–voltage characteristic can be tailored by selecting the semiconductor materials and the doping impurities introduced into the materials during manufacture. These techniques are used to create special-purpose diodes that perform many different functions. For example, diodes are used to regulate voltage (Zener diodes), to protect circuits from high voltage surges (avalanche diodes), to electronically tune radio and TV receivers (varactor diodes), to generate radio-frequency oscillations (tunnel diodes, Gunn diodes, IMPATT diodes), and to produce light (light-emitting diodes). Tunnel, Gunn and IMPATT diodes exhibit negative resistance, which is useful in microwave and switching circuits.
Diodes, both vacuum and semiconductor, can be used as shot-noise generators.