When a transistor is in the fully-off state (like an open switch), it is said to be cutoff. Conversely, when it is fully conductive between emitter and collector (passing as much current through the collector as the collector power supply and load will allow), it is said to be saturated. These are the two modes of operation explored thus far in using the transistor as a switch.
However, bipolar transistors don't have to be restricted to these two extreme modes of operation. As we learned in the previous section, base current "opens a gate" for a limited amount of current through the collector. If this limit for the controlled current is greater than zero but less than the maximum allowed by the power supply and load circuit, the transistor will "throttle" the collector current in a mode somewhere between cutoff and saturation. This mode of operation is called the active mode.
An automotive analogy for transistor operation is as follows: cutoff is the condition where there is no motive force generated by the mechanical parts of the car to make it move. In cutoff mode, the brake is engaged (zero base current), preventing motion (collector current). Active mode is when the automobile is cruising at a constant, controlled speed (constant, controlled collector current) as dictated by the driver. Saturation is when the automobile is driving up a steep hill that prevents it from going as fast as the driver would wish. In other words, a "saturated" automobile is one where the accelerator pedal is pushed all the way down (base current calling for more collector current than can be provided by the power supply/load circuit).
I'll set up a circuit for SPICE simulation to demonstrate what happens when a transistor is in its active mode of operation:
"Q" is the standard letter designation for a transistor in a schematic diagram, just as "R" is for resistor and "C" is for capacitor. In this circuit, we have an NPN transistor powered by a battery (V1) and controlled by current through a current source (I1). A current source is a device that outputs a specific amount of current, generating as much or as little voltage as necessary across its terminals to ensure that exact amount of current through it. Current sources are notoriously difficult to find in nature (unlike voltage sources, which by contrast attempt to maintain a constant voltage, outputting as much or as little current in the fulfillment of that task), but can be simulated with a small collection of electronic components. As we are about to see, transistors themselves tend to mimic the constant-current behavior of a current source in their ability to regulate current at a fixed value.
In the SPICE simulation, I'll set the current source at a constant value of 20 µA, then vary the voltage source (V1) over a range of 0 to 2 volts and monitor how much current goes through it. The "dummy" battery (Vammeter) with its output of 0 volts serves merely to provide SPICE with a circuit element for current measurement.
bipolar transistor simulation
i1 0 1 dc 20u
q1 2 1 0 mod1
vammeter 3 2 dc 0
v1 3 0 dc
.model mod1 npn
.dc v1 0 2 0.05
.plot dc i(vammeter)