Phototransistors are solid-state light detectors with internal gain that are used to provide analog or digital signals. They detect visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared light from a variety of sources and are more sensitive than photodiodes, semiconductor devices that require a pre-amplifier. Phototransistors feed a photocurrent output into the base of a small signal transistor. For each illumination level, the output is defined by the area of the exposed collector-base junction and the DC current gain of the transistor. The base current from the incident photons is amplified by the gain of the transistor, resulting in current gains that range from hundreds to several thousands. Response time is a function of the capacitance of the collector-base junction and the value of the load resistance. Photodarlingtons, a common type of phototransistor, have two stages of gain and can provide net gains greater than 100,000. Because of their ease of use, low cost and compatibility with transistor-transistor logic (TTL), phototransistors are often used in applications where more than several hundred nanowatts (nW) of optical power are available.
Selecting phototransistors requires an analysis of performance specifications. Collector current is the total amount of current that flows into the collector terminal. Collector dark current is the amount of collector current for which there is no optical input. Typically, both collector current and collector dark current are measured in milliamps (mA). Peak wavelength, the wavelength at which phototransistors are most responsive, is measured in nanometers (nm). Rise time, the time that elapses when a pulse waveform increases from 10% to 90% of its maximum value, is expressed in nanoseconds (ns). Collector-emitter breakdown voltage is the voltage at which phototransistors conduct a specified (nondestructive) current when biased in the normal direction without optical or electrical inputs to the base. Power dissipation, a measure of total power consumption, is measured in milliwatts (mW). Other performance specifications for phototransistors include spectral range, fall time, acceptance angle, and operating temperature.