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Design and Evaluation of a Compact Silicon Carbide
Photoconductive Semiconductor Switch
Colt James, Member, IEEE, Cameron Hettler, Member, IEEE, and James Dickens, Senior Member, IEEE

Abstract—A high-power vertical photoconductive switch was
fabricated from a high-purity semi-insulating 4H-SiC wafer. The
device was fabricated from an as-grown wafer with resistivity > 109 Ω · cm and had a dark resistance of greater than
6 × 109 Ω. The switch was operated at 15 kV/cm and achieved
a peak photocurrent of 14 A into a 25-Ω load. Optimization of
the excitation wavelength and switch geometry using an optical
parametric oscillator was studied in order to decrease the laser
requirements for optical triggering. This has led to a decrease in
ON -state resistance of almost two orders of magnitude for similar
excitation energy levels at visible wavelengths. This work forms the
basis for developing very compact high-voltage photoconductive
Index Terms—Photoconducting devices, photoconductivity,
power semiconductor switches, silicon carbide.



HOTOCONDUCTIVE semiconductor switches (PCSSs)
are low-jitter compact alternatives to traditional gas
switches in pulsed power systems. Silicon carbide has gained
popularity as a high-power high-temperature device material because of its wide bandgap (3.23–3.35 eV), high
breakdown field (4 MV/cm), and high thermal conductivity
[3.7 W/(cm · K)] [1], [2]. These characteristics make SiC well
suited as a high-power PCSS material. The main disadvantage
with SiC as a photoswitch material is the high trigger energies
required for linear-mode operation. SiC switches require a
much higher optical energy to reach low ON-state resistance
compared with high-gain GaAs photoswitches.
Numerous SiC devices have been demonstrated [3]–[5], and
a great deal of progress has been made toward high-voltage
photoconductive switches by using several techniques to extend
the operating voltage range of the devices; however, little work
has gone into decreasing the triggering requirements of the
switch. This could open up different possibilities for excitation
sources and potentially decrease the size of the overall system.
Silicon carbide, as an indirect bandgap semiconductor, offers
some benefits when tuning the excitation wavelength. Absorption in silicon carbide does not exhibit a sharp transition at the
band edge. Typically, it is expected that above bandgap light

Manuscript received June 23, 2010; revised August 24, 2010 and
October 14, 2010; accepted October 15, 2010. Date of publication
November 22, 2010; date of current version January 21, 2011. This work
was supported by the Office of Naval Research. The review of this paper was
arranged by Editor L. Lunardi.
The authors are with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX 79409 USA (e-mail: cameron.
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/TED.2010.2089689

is absorbed mostly at the surface with little penetrating into
the bulk material. For SiC, it has been shown [6] that above
bandgap light can still penetrate hundreds of micrometers into
the material. This makes it possible to tune a laser source to a
specific application, maximizing absorption depth and carrier
generation within an optically controlled device.
This paper presents the design and evaluation of a 4HSiC PCSS under low-voltage operation, which is conducted to
optimize the optical triggering of the device. The goal of this
device optimization is to reduce the size and complexity of not
only the switch but also the supporting hardware required for
triggering. It is of particular interest to reliably trigger a SiC
PCSS with optical trigger energies of less than hundreds of
microjoules. The device evaluation is complemented by numerical simulations that were performed in order to determine the
affects of various switch parameters on performance.
The switch design used in these experiments is based on
high-purity semi-insulating (HPSI) 4H-SiC. The material is
335 μm thick with a room temperature resistivity, as stated
by the manufacturer, of > 109 Ω · cm. 4H-SiC was used for
these experiments due to the much higher (6.5 ns [7]) recombination lifetime and higher mobility of 4H versus other polytypes of SiC. The other commercially available semi-insulating
polytype of SiC, i.e., vanadium-doped 6H-SiC, has reported
recombination lifetimes on the order of 140 ps [8]. Since the
ON -state resistance of a linear-mode photoconductive switch is
inversely proportional to the effective carrier lifetime, HPSI 4HSiC should offer a more than 40× improvement over vanadiumdoped 6H-SiC.
Visible wavelengths are weakly absorbed in SiC because of
the wide indirect bandgap. With an absorption coefficient α
of less than 1 cm−1 above 450 nm, this leads to high optical
energy requirements for conduction. In order to efficiently
absorb visible wavelengths, a long optical path is required. This
could be accomplished with thick cut wafers or, as is typically
done, by illuminating the switch through an edge facet. Edge
triggering has the drawback of requiring a complicated optical
setup to properly shape and align the optical pulse. These setups
are also easily susceptible to misalignment. In order to simplify
the optical setup, the design presented in this paper illuminates
the switch via a transparent contact and a hollow electrode.
Fig. 1 shows the vertical switch design used in these tests.
The switch is fabricated on 12.5 × 12.5 mm 4H-SiC samples
with NiSi contacts formed on opposing sides by depositing
Ni/Ti/Pt at a thickness of 50 nm/100 nm/100 nm and then

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The CVR has a minimum measurable rise time of 0. The Al electrodes provide good electrical conductivity and high thermal conductivity to remove heat from the device when switching while still being easy to machine. The charging voltage remained at 500 V for all tests. R ESULTS The room temperature dark (off) resistance measured for this device is 6 × 109 Ω. respectively). Anode triggering shows an average improvement of 70. Diagram of the PCSS test circuit used in all switching tests. which is cured at 65 ◦ C to provide a lower resistivity connection. which was achieved by a light-shaping diffuser. The test bed allows optical triggering of the PCSS via the anode. The optical pulse energy was measured with a calorimeter prior to each shot. a higher photocurrent is seen when the anode is illuminated. The spatial intensity profile of the laser was uniform over the entire switch face. or the edge of the device with minimal adjustment. 2 shows the test circuit used for all photoconductivity tests. 1. Fig. operating at a maximum repetition rate of 10 Hz. This gives a resistivity of almost 1011 Ω · cm. An annular Ag cap layer is deposited on top of the gridded contact to allow electrode attachment. The photocurrent was monitored using a 0. Finally.3 ns and a maximum bandwidth of 1. The photocurrent efficiency is a performance measure that allows for a normalized comparison of the ON-state resistance relative to the triggering optical energy. The opposing contact is a solid contact 8 mm in diameter with a solid Ag cap layer. Since the carrier lifetime in this material is low (6. The stray inductance of the circuit is estimated to be less than 100 nH. Approximately 50% of the incident light is transmitted into the semiconductor because of surface reflections and the gridded electrode. Aluminum electrodes are attached to the thin-film contact with conductive silver epoxy. . Fig. and UV neutral density filters were used to vary the intensity of the incident beam.JAMES et al. the efficiency for the two triggering schemes is expected to differ. Summary of results for anode and cathode triggering. 2. a carrier gradient is created. III. This improvement is attributed to the high-electron mobility in 4H-SiC. The transparent contact is deposited in a 6-mm-diameter grid pattern with approximately 70% transmission. The higher mobility allows more of the electrons to be swept across the gap. Fig.: DESIGN AND EVALUATION OF A SILICON CARBIDE PCSS 509 Fig. 3 summarizes these results.6% over cathode triggering.0495-Ω current-viewing resistor (CVR) in series with a 25-Ω load resistor. Cross section of the vertical PCSS showing the gridded thin-film contact and the hollow electrode. IV. The OPO generates a 7-ns full-width at half-maximum (FWHM) optical pulse with a rise time of 1. No additional cooling was required beyond the aluminum electrodes.5 ns that is used to trigger the PCSS. rapidly annealing at 1000 ◦ C for 5 min. mechanical stability and robustness are provided by encapsulating the switch in a low-viscosity vacuum-degassed epoxy. E XPERIMENTAL S ETUP Photoconductivity tests were carried out using an optical parametric oscillator (OPO) pumped by a Nd:YAG laser. Fig.2 GHz. which is higher than the minimum value provided by the manufacturer. The gradient is higher at the trigger electrode with fewer carriers being generated at the opposing electrode. Comparisons were made between anode and cathode triggering. When the switch is triggered through an electrode. The OPO was used to modulate the conductivity of the switch. 3. the cathode. thus.5 ns) and the electron and hole mobilities are disproportionate (800 and 40 cm2 /(V · s).

The efficiency increases with decreasing wavelength to a peak at 366 nm. (Top) Change in photocurrent with various trigger energies. 4. therefore. 5 (top) shows the results of switch operation at various trigger energy levels with a charging voltage of 500 V.5 ns. it is impossible to quantify to what extent the switch degraded and whether the device has reached a stable operating state or will continue to degrade. 2. Visible wavelengths show very little absorption and. the design goal is to make this saturation point at as low a trigger energy as possible. Injection efficiency as low as 1% has been given [10]. saturation of the ON -state characteristics is expected at some energy level with little improvement seen after this point. which supports the reported carrier lifetime of 6. Despite the low ON/OFF resistance. The optimal trigger wavelength for this device was determined by using the OPO to scan from 345 to 510 nm while monitoring the peak photocurrent and optical trigger energy. With a semiconductor thickness of 335 μm. For shallow absorption depths. The ON / OFF resistance ratio is > 108 . For this project. Fig. This is most likely a result of poor ohmic contact formation to semi-insulating SiC. NO. In order to determine the most efficient excitation wavelength. Fig. A PCSS has nonlinear dependence on the trigger energy. 5 (bottom) summarizes the ON-state characteristics of the switch with increasing trigger energy.510 IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON ELECTRON DEVICES. which corresponds to a switch ON -state resistance value of 11 Ω. The oscillations in the photocurrent waveforms are caused by the temporal intensity profile of the laser source. this means that only about 6% of the incident light reaches the opposite electrode and that the rest is absorbed in the interelectrode gap and can contribute to conduction. leading to a tradeoff between the absorption of the incident energy and the depth at which it is absorbed. The peak photocurrent presented is lower Fig. the operational frequency of the device is limited by both the source frequency and the switch carrier lifetime. light absorption dramatically increases.083 μA. (Bottom) Saturation of photocurrent and ON-state resistance with increasing laser energy. Without highly conductive layers beneath the contacts. The peak at 366 nm corresponds to an absorption coefficient of approximately 75 cm−1 [6]. an absorption spectrum for 4H-SiC was measured using a broad-band light source and a calibrated spectrograph. the efficiency is low in the visible wavelengths. 58. The falloff is due to the short carrier lifetime of the material and the long transit times at this electric field level. Both tests with anode triggering. the leakage current at 500 V is only 0. FEBRUARY 2011 Fig. where it begins to fall off again sharply. and thus. Dependence of photocurrent efficiency on wavelength. 5 (bottom) shows that the switch saturates after approximately 500 μJ. The lowering of the photocurrent is attributed to contact degradation that was most likely caused by the current being nonuniformly distributed due to the gridded semitransparent contact. which has no effect on the system. 4 shows the calculated photocurrent efficiency for this wavelength range. Near the band edge (350– 380 nm). A NALYSIS The peak photocurrent efficiency achieved with this switch is almost two orders of magnitude lower than results previously published [9]. the photogenerated carriers do not have time to be swept across the gap before recombining. (Inset) Detailed view of the photocurrent efficiency peak at 366 nm. which is slightly lower than values published for other 4H-SiC devices [5]. Consequently. 5. offer very low excitation efficiency. . VOL. than the maximum first achievable with this switch following a noticeable decrease after the first several hundred shots. As expected. At this time. The photocurrent loosely follows the applied optical pulse. Fig. A peak photocurrent of 14 A was measured into a 25-Ω load. V. the injection efficiency of ohmic contacts to semi-insulating SiC is low. Fig. however.

Y.. At very low injection efficiency. Gaska. have an injection efficiency value of 100%. vol. vol. Neuber. 3. which is typically done with the addition of a highly conductive region below the contact. This will increase the photocurrent efficiency of the device and decrease the needed optical energy even further. L. O. 2001. 2005. Hettler. Shur.. which. vol. M. Picosecond Optoelectronic Devices. May 2005. Saddow. Lett. L. E. [4] S. [12] T. A minimum ON -state resistance value of 11 Ω was achieved. P. The photocurrent efficiency was increased by James Dickens (M’91–SM’05). 18. Dogan. Blank. H. C. pp. and the magnitude of the response is very low. Nunnally. Myers. A. Leach. “Electrical and optical modeling of 4H-SiC avalanche photodiodes. “Optically activated 4H-SiC p-i-n diodes for high-power applications. Tamulaitis. [6] H. [7] C. Hobgood. vol. 7. photograph and biography not available at the time of publication. May 2003. 5423–5425. Jul. H. Kumar. C. pp. S. pp. S. Konstantinov. 3107–3109. B. Borrego. Sandvik. Jul. the ON-state characteristics of the vertical PCSS were analyzed. Phys. 1182–1184. longer carrier lifetimes should further decrease the ON-state resistance and optical triggering energy. C. 372–374.JAMES et al. Sci. Lett. New York: Wiley. M. no. J. H. no. M. no.. Fig. M.” J. T. Zhao. Harris. “4H-SiC photoconductive switching devices for use in high-power applications. Li. “Carrier lifetime studies of semi-insulating silicon carbide for photoconductive switch applications. This could be a nonlinear optical effect from the high incident optical power. Lee. “Effect of n+ -GaN subcontact layer on 4H-SiC high-power photoconductive switch. Tang. Rumyantsev. and A. 20. Zhou. 710–715. Islam.” Appl. IEEE Int. Smith.. no. 6 summarizes the normalized simulation results for several different injection efficiencies.” Semicond. 2004. 2009. vol. however. Phys. 6. New York: Academic. Y. 335–338.. D. (Inset) Effects of injection efficiency on the normalized carrier density. I.” Appl. R. pp. Huang. Additionally.. Experimental data versus the simulated photocurrent assuming an injection efficiency value of 1%. Jr. and R. H. 84. and sub-50-Ω ON -state resistance was achieved with less than 200 μJ of optical energy. M. Jun. “Temperature dependence of the photoelectric conversion quantum efficiency of 4H-SiC Schottky UV photodetectors. Technol. P. [8] G. Johnstone. 82. S. Appl. Dogan. [11] W. [3] F. A. Carter. 6 shows the results of the simulation where the input to the simulation is the optical pulse from the OPO. and S. Nov. The experimental data are in good agreement with the simulation results using an injection efficiency value of 1%. no. vol.. Malta. J. D. The inset of Fig. Jan. 8. 18. Sheng. M. F. 26.: DESIGN AND EVALUATION OF A SILICON CARBIDE PCSS 511 over two orders of magnitude over subband excitation by tuning the trigger wavelength to the device thickness. photograph and biography not available at the time of publication. This initial work demonstrates that a compact pulsed power switching system is possible using photoconductive switches and compact laser sources. J. 2008. May 2010. and T. S. [9] K. Teke. A. R EFERENCES Fig. Spencer. J.” Jpn. 1997. J. J. The addition of highly conductive layers beneath the contacts should lead to contact behavior closer to ideal ohmic contacts. no. O. James. “Microwave photoconductivity decay characterization of high-purity 4H-SiC substrates. D. Using this model. “Polycrystalline cubic silicon carbide photoconductive switch. A. The simulation predicts that less than 5% of the incident light is being absorbed. Y. Ganguly. Parish. . it is most likely a result of SiC’s low quantum efficiency in these wavelengths [12] and the degradation of the contacts. 30. 11. Anderson. Dickens. Properties of Advanced Semiconductor Materials. pp. C. pp. 2010. C ONCLUSION Cameron Hettler (M’05). Moon. 013 704. photograph and biography not available at the time of publication. Highly conductive layers beneath the contacts will be necessary to decrease both the ON-state resistance and optical triggering requirements of the switch. Jenny. [2] R. Kalinina.” Appl. Levinshtein. 47. Eds. Roberts. A numerical model using MATLAB Simulink was created to verify the effects of low injection efficiency on the ON-state characteristics of the photoconductive switch. Appl. H. M. [1] M. Ed. no.” IEEE Electron Device Lett. and A. Morkoc. Nunnally [11] proposed a model for the time-varying carrier concentration in a pulse-excited photoconductive switch. T. G. In conclusion.. Phys. Morkoc. B. Phys. Cha and P. 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