How to Make a 12-Volt Voltage Regulator

By John Papiewski
A Zener diode can serve as a simple 12-volt regulator

While prepackaged devices exist to regulate low DC fixed voltages, it’s possible to build your own from scratch. Zener diodes make good low-voltage, low-current regulators by themselves. In beefier power supplies they act as a voltage reference controlling one or more transistors that can handle more current. To illustrate how a Zener works, you can make a simple regulator using a 12-volt, 5-watt Zener diode that will supply up to 300 milliamps of current.

Note the band on the body of the Zener. This marks the diode’s cathode side. Since Zeners regulate by reverse conduction, you wire the cathode to positive power.

Turn the unregulated power supply off. Connect its positive and ground to the breadboard’s power buss.

Insert the Zener into the breadboard. Insert the 40-ohm resistor into the breadboard so that it connects to the Zener’s cathode. Wire the free (unused) lead of the resistor to positive unregulated power from the breadboard’s power buss. Wire the power supply ground to the Zener’s anode. Insert two longer jumper wires so the end of one connects to the Zener’s anode, and the other wire connects to its cathode. For now, leave the free ends of these wires unconnected.

Set the multimeter to read DC volts. Clip the multimeter’s positive (red) lead to the long jumper wire coming from the Zener’s cathode, and the multimeter’s negative (black) lead to the wire coming from the anode. Turn the power supply on. You should read a steady 12 volts.

Tip

Wire a fuseholder in series with the regulator’s output and use a 1/3 amp fuse. This will protect the Zener in case you overload or short-circuit the regulator. The resistor was calculated to work with a 24V source, a 12V output, and 300 milliamps of current. You can calculate other resistance values with the following formula: R = (Vs - Vz) / Imax Where R is the resistance in ohms, Vs is the unregulated source voltage, Vz is the Zener’s voltage and Imax is the maximum current you want. You then need to calculate the resistor’s minimum power rating with this formula: P > (Vs - Vz) × Imax Where P is the resistor’s power in watts, and Vs, Vz and Imax are as before. Always round up to the next available power rating (or two, for extra safety). For example, if you calculate a power rating of 400 milliwatts, a ½-watt resistor will be safe, but a 1-watt resistor will be better.

About the Author

Chicago native J.T. Barett has a Bachelor of Science in physics from Northeastern Illinois University and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance."