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Semiconductor is a material with electrical conductivity that is

intermediate between that of an insulator and a conductor. The
conductivity and other electrical properties of semiconductors are
determined by the material's electronic band structure. Semiconductors'
electrical properties may be modified by introducing impurities in a
process known as doping. The ability to control conductivity in small and
well-defined regions of semiconductor material has led to the
development of a broad array of semiconductor devices, and these are
combined with the simpler passive components to produce a variety of
electronic devices.
A diode is the simplest possible semiconductor device, and is therefore
an excellent beginning point if you want to understand how
semiconductors work. In this article, you'll learn what a semiconductor is,
how doping works and how a diode can be created using semiconductors.
Silicon is a very common element -- for example, it is the main element
in sand and quartz. If you look "silicon" up in the periodic table, you will
find that it sits next to aluminum, below carbon and above germanium.

Silicon sits next to aluminum and below carbon in the periodic


Carbon, silicon and germanium (germanium, like silicon, is also a

semiconductor) have a unique property in their electron structure -- each
has four electrons in its outer orbital. This allows them to form nice
crystals. The four electrons form perfect covalent bonds with four
neighboring atoms, creating a lattice. In carbon, we know the crystalline
form as diamond. In silicon, the crystalline form is a silvery, metalliclooking substance.

In a silicon lattice, all silicon atoms bond perfectly to

four neighbors, leaving no free electrons to conduct
electric current. This makes a silicon crystal an
insulator rather than a conductor.
Metals tend to be good conductors of electricity because they usually
have "free electrons" that can move easily between atoms, and electricity
involves the flow of electrons. While silicon crystals look metallic, they
are not, in fact, metals. All of the outer electrons in a silicon crystal are
involved in perfect covalent bonds, so they can't move around. A pure
silicon crystal is nearly an insulator -- very little electricity will flow
through it.

You can change the behavior of silicon and turn it into a conductor by
doping it. In doping, you mix a small amount of an impurity into the
silicon crystal.

There are two types of impurities:

N-type - In N-type doping, phosphorus or arsenic is added to the

silicon in small quantities. Phosphorus and arsenic each have five
outer electrons, so they're out of place when they get into the
silicon lattice. The fifth electron has nothing to bond to, so it's free
to move around. It takes only a very small quantity of the impurity
to create enough free electrons to allow an electric current to flow
through the silicon. N-type silicon is a good conductor. Electrons
have a negative charge, hence the name N-type.

P-type - In P-type doping, boron or gallium is the dopant Boron

and gallium each have only three outer electrons. When mixed into
the silicon lattice, they form "holes" in the lattice where a silicon
electron has nothing to bond to. The absence of an electron creates
the effect of a positive charge, hence the name P-type. Holes can
conduct current. A hole happily accepts an electron from a
neighbor, moving the hole over a space. P-type silicon is a good

A minute amount of either N-type or P-type doping turns a silicon crystal

from a good insulator into a viable (but not great) conductor -- hence the
name "semiconductor."
N-type and P-type silicon are not that amazing by themselves; but when
you put them together, you get some very interesting behavior at the
A diode is the simplest possible semiconductor device. A diode allows
current to flow in one direction but not the other. You may have seen
turnstiles at a stadium or a subway station that let people go through in
only one direction. A diode is a one-way turnstile for electrons.
When you put N-type and P-type silicon together as shown in this
diagram, you get a very interesting phenomenon that gives a diode its
unique properties.

Even though N-type silicon by itself is a conductor, and P-type silicon by

itself is also a conductor, the combination shown in the diagram does not
conduct any electricity. The negative electrons in the N-type silicon get
attracted to the positive terminal of the battery. The positive holes in the
P-type silicon get attracted to the negative terminal of the battery. No
current flows across the junction because the holes and the electrons are
each moving in the wrong direction.
If you flip the battery around, the diode conducts electricity just fine.
The free electrons in the N-type silicon are repelled by the negative
terminal of the battery. The holes in the P-type silicon are repelled by the
positive terminal. At the junction between the N-type and P-type silicon,
holes and free electrons meet. The electrons fill the holes. Those holes
and free electrons cease to exist, and new holes and electrons spring up to
take their place. The effect is that current flows through the junction.
A device that blocks current in one direction while letting current flow in
another direction is called a diode. Diodes can be used in a number of
ways. For example, a device that uses batteries often contains a diode that
protects the device if you insert the batteries backward. The diode simply

blocks any current from leaving the battery if it is reversed -- this protects
the sensitive electronics in the device.
A semiconductor diode's behavior is not perfect, as shown in this graph:

When reverse-biased, an ideal diode would block all current. A real

diode lets perhaps 10 micro amps through -- not a lot, but still not perfect.
And if you apply enough reverse voltage (V), the junction breaks down
and lets current through. Usually, the breakdown voltage is a lot more
voltage than the circuit will ever see, so it is irrelevant.
When forward-biased, there is a small amount of voltage necessary to
get the diode going. In silicon, this voltage is about 0.7 volts. This voltage
is needed to start the hole-electron combination process at the junction.
A transistor is created by using three layers rather than the two layers
used in a diode. You can create either an NPN or a PNP sandwich. A
transistor can act as a switch or an amplifier.
A transistor looks like two diodes back-to-back. You'd imagine that no
current could flow through a transistor because back-to-back diodes
would block current both ways. And this is true. However, when you

apply a small current to the center layer of the sandwich, a much larger
current can flow through the sandwich as a whole. This gives a transistor
its switching behavior. A small current can turn a larger current on and
A silicon chip is a piece of silicon that can hold thousands of transistors.
With transistors acting as switches, you can create Boolean gates, and
with Boolean gates you can create microprocessor chips.
The natural progression from silicon to doped silicon to transistors to
chips is what has made microprocessors and other electronic devices so
inexpensive and ubiquitous in today's society. The fundamental principles
are surprisingly simple. The miracle is the constant refinement of those
principles to the point where, today, tens of millions of transistors can be
inexpensively formed onto a single chip.
semiconductor behaves as an insulator at very low temperatures, but its
electrical conductivity increases with temperature. Even at room
temperature, a semiconductor's conductivity remains lower than that of a
Semiconductors may be elemental materials, such as silicon, compound
semiconductors such as gallium arsenide, or alloys, such as silicon
germanium or aluminum gallium arsenide.
Semiconductors and insulators have an electronic band structure with a
band gap between the uppermost filled band (the valence band) and the
next available band, the conduction band. This means that most of the
valence electrons are not free to move through the material. This contrasts
with metals and other conductors, which have a partially filled band,
allowing the electrons to move freely through the material.

The distinction between a semiconductor and an insulator is only that the

band gap in a semiconductor is smaller than in an insulator, so that the
thermal energy available at room temperature excites appreciable
numbers of electrons into its conduction band. However, an insulator
usually has a band gap which is too wide for there to be significant
excitation of electrons into its conduction band at room temperature.
Electrons transfer between the valence and conduction bands by carrier
generation and recombination processes. The rate of these processes is
governed by the law of mass action.
Semiconductor electronic properties are modified by doping, which is the
introduction of impurities into the material. The dopants are chosen either
to be donors, likely to contribute additional conduction band electrons; or
acceptors, likely to capture electrons from the valence band. The
arrangement of these dopant atoms is what produces such semiconductor
devices as diodes and bipolar junction transistors.
The electronic properties can also be affected by applied electrical or
magnetic fields from outside the semiconductor. This behavior is what
makes possible devices such as insulated-gate field effect transistors
(IGFETs or MOSFETs) and Hall Effect sensors.

Band structure

Band structure of a semiconductor showing a full valence band and an

empty conduction band.
For more details on this topic, see Electronic band structure.
Like other solids, the electrons in semiconductors can have energies only
within certain bands between the energy of the ground state,
corresponding to electrons tightly bound to the atomic nuclei of the
material, and the free electron energy, which is the energy required for an
electron to escape entirely from the material. The energy bands each
correspond to a large number of discrete quantum states of the electrons,
and most of the states with low energy are full, up to a particular band
called the valence band. Semiconductors and insulators are distinguished
from conductors because the valence band in these materials is very
nearly full under normal conditions.
The ease with which electrons in a semiconductor can be excited from the
valence band to the conduction band depends on the band gap between

the bands, and it is the size of this energy band gap that serves as an
arbitrary dividing line between semiconductors and insulators.
The electrons must move between states to conduct electric current, and
so due to the Pauli exclusion principle full bands do not contribute to the
electrical conductivity. However, as the temperature of a semiconductor
rises above absolute zero, the states of the electrons are increasingly
randomized, or smeared out, and some electrons are likely to be found in
states of the conduction band, which is the band immediately above the
valence band. The current-carrying electrons in the conduction band are
known as "free electrons", although they are often simply called
"electrons" if context allows this usage to be clear.
Electrons excited to the conduction band also leave behind electron holes,
or unoccupied states in the valence band. Both the conduction band
electrons and the valence band holes contribute to electrical conductivity.
The holes themselves don't actually move, but a neighboring electron can
move to fill the hole, leaving a hole at the place it has just come from, and
in this way the holes appear to move, and the holes behave as if they were
actual positively charged particles.
This behavior may also be viewed in relation to chemical bonding. The
electrons that have enough energy to be in the conduction band have
broken free of the covalent bonds between neighboring atoms in the solid,
and are free to move around, and hence conduct charge.
It is an important distinction between conductors and semiconductors
that, in semiconductors, movement of charge (current) is facilitated by
both electrons and holes. Contrast this to a conductor where the Fermi
level lies within the conduction band, such that the band is only half filled
with electrons. In this case, only a small amount of energy is needed for

the electrons to find other unoccupied states to move into, and hence for
current to flow.

Fermi-Dirac distribution. States with energy below the Fermi energy,

here , have higher probability n to be occupied, and those above are less
likely to be occupied. Smearing of the distribution increases with
The energy distribution of the electrons determines which of the states are
filled and which are empty. This distribution is described by Fermi-Dirac
statistics. The distribution is characterized by the temperature of the
electrons, and the Fermi energy or Fermi level. Under absolute zero
conditions the Fermi energy can be thought of as the energy up to which
available electron states are occupied. At higher temperatures, the Fermi
energy is the energy at which the probability of a state being occupied has
fallen to 0.5.

The dependence of the electron energy distribution on temperature also

explains why the conductivity of a semiconductor has a strong
temperature dependency, as a semiconductor operating at lower
temperatures will have fewer available free electrons and holes able to do
the work.
Energy-momentum dispersion
In the preceding description an important fact is ignored for the sake of
simplicity: the dispersion of the energy. The reason that the energies of
the states are broadened into a band is that the energy depends on the
value of the wave vector, or k-vector, of the electron. The k-vector, in
quantum mechanics, is the representation of the momentum of a particle.
The E-k relationship varies from material to material.
The dispersion relationship determines the effective mass, m

-, of

electrons or holes in the semiconductor, according to the formula:

The effective mass is important as it effects many of the electrical

properties of the semiconductor, such as the electron or hole mobility,
which in turn influences the diffusivity of the charge carriers and the
electrical conductivity of the semiconductor.
Typically the effective mass of electrons and holes are different. This
affects the relative performance of p-channel and n-channel IGFETs, for
example (Muller & Kamins 1986:427).
The top of the valence band and the bottom of the conduction band might
not occur at that same value of k. Materials with this situation, such as

silicon and germanium, are known as indirect band gap materials.

Materials in which the band extreme are aligned in k, for example
gallium arsenide, are called direct band gap semiconductors. Direct gap
semiconductors are particularly important in optoelectronics because they
are much more efficient as light emitters than indirect gap materials.
Carrier generation and recombination
For more details on this topic, see Carrier generation and
When ionizing radiation strikes a semiconductor, it will often excite an
electron out of its energy level and consequently leave a hole. This
process is known as electron-hole pair generation. A useful concept is the
excitation which describes the electron and hole being bound together
into a quasiparticle. The details of the specific processes through which
electron-hole pairs are created are not well known, however, it is known
that the average energy needed to create an electron-hole pair at a given
temperature is dependent on the type and the energy of the ionizing
radiation. In silicon, this energy is equal to 3.62 eV at room temperature
and 3.72 eV at 80 K.
For more details on this topic, see Doping (semiconductor).
The property of semiconductors that makes them most useful for
constructing electronic devices is that their conductivity may easily be
modified by introducing impurities into their crystal lattice. The process
of adding controlled impurities to a semiconductor is known as doping.
The amount of impurity, or dopant, added to an intrinsic (pure)

semiconductor varies its level of conductivity. Doped semiconductors are

often referred to as extrinsic.

The materials chosen as suitable dopants depend on the atomic properties
of both the dopant and the material to be doped. In general, dopants that
produce the desired controlled changes are classified as either electron
acceptors or donors. A donor atom that activates (that is, becomes
incorporated into the crystal lattice) donates weakly-bound valence
electrons to the material, creating excess negative charge carriers. These
weakly-bound electrons can move about in the crystal lattice relatively
freely and can facilitate conduction in the presence of an electric field.
Conversely, an activated acceptor produces a hole. Semiconductors doped
with donor impurities are called n-type, while those doped with acceptor
impurities are known as p-type. The n and p type designations indicate
which charge carrier acts as the material's majority carrier. The opposite
carrier is called the minority carrier, which exists due to thermal
excitation at a much lower concentration compared to the majority
For example, the pure semiconductor silicon has four valence electrons.
In silicon, the most common dopants are IUPAC group 13 (commonly
known as column III) and group 15 (commonly known as column IV)
elements. Group 13 elements all contain three valence electrons, causing
them to function as acceptors when used to dope silicon. Group 15
elements have five valence electrons, which allow them to act as a donor.
Therefore, a silicon crystal doped with boron creates a p-type
semiconductor whereas one doped with phosphorus results in an n-type
Carrier concentration

The concentration of dopant introduced to an intrinsic semiconductor

determines its concentration and indirectly affects many of its electrical
properties. The most important factor that doping directly affects is the
material's carrier concentration. In an intrinsic semiconductor under
thermal equilibrium, the concentration of electrons and holes is
equivalent. That is,
n = p = ni
Where n is the concentration of conducting electrons, p is the electron
hole concentration, and ni is the material's intrinsic carrier concentration.
Intrinsic carrier concentration varies between materials and is dependent
on temperature. Silicon's ni, for example, is roughly 110-3 cm-3 at 300
Kelvin (room temperature).
In general, an increase in doping concentration affords an increase in
conductivity due to the higher concentration of carriers available for
conduction. Degenerately (very highly) doped semiconductors have
conductivity levels comparable to metals and are often used in modern
integrated circuits as a replacement for metal. Often superscript plus and
minus symbols are used to denote relative doping concentration in
semiconductors. For example, n + denotes an n-type semiconductor with a
high, often degenerate, doping concentration. Similarly, p


indicate a very lightly doped p-type material. It is useful to note that even
degenerate levels of doping imply low concentrations of impurities with
respect to the base semiconductor. In crystalline intrinsic silicon, there is
approximately 51022 atoms/cm. Doping concentration for silicon
semiconductors may range anywhere from 1013 cm-3 to 1018 cm-3. Doping
concentration above about 1018 cm-3 is considered degenerate at room
temperature. Degenerately doped silicon contains a proportion of
impurity to silicon in the order of parts per thousand. This proportion may

be reduced to parts per billion in very lightly doped silicon. Typical

concentration values fall somewhere in this range and are tailored to
produce the desired properties in the device that the semiconductor is
intended for.
Carrier Drift:
The process in which charged particles move because of an electric
field is called drift.
Charged particles within a semiconductor move with an average
velocity proportional to the electric field.
The proportionality constant is the carrier mobility.

vh p E

ve n E

Carrier Diffusion:
Due to thermally induced random motion, mobile particles tend to
move from a region of high concentration to a region of low
Analogy: ink droplet in water

Current flow due to mobile charge diffusion is proportional to the

carrier concentration gradient.
The proportionality constant is the diffusion constant.

J p qD p


Velocity Saturation:
In reality, carrier velocities saturate at an upper limit, called
the saturation velocity (vsat).
1 bE

vsat 0
0 E

Diffusion Current:

Effect on band structure

Band diagram of a p+n junction. The band bending is a result of the

positioning of the Fermi levels in the p+ and n sides.
Doping a semiconductor crystal introduces allowed energy states within
the band gap but very close to the energy band that corresponds with the
dopant type. In other words, donor impurities create states near the
conduction band while acceptors create states near the valence band. The
gap between these energy states and the nearest energy band is usually
referred to as dopant-site bonding energy or EB and is relatively small.
For example, the EB for boron in silicon bulk is 0.045 eV, compared with
silicon's band gap of about 1.12 eV. Because EB is so small, it takes little
energy to ionize the dopant atoms and create free carriers in the

conduction or valence bands. Usually the thermal energy available at

room temperature is sufficient to ionize most of the dopant.
Dopants also have the important effect of shifting the material's Fermi
level towards the energy band that corresponds with the dopant with the
greatest concentration. Since the Fermi level must remain constant in a
system in thermodynamic equilibrium, stacking layers of materials with
different properties leads to many useful electrical properties. For
example, the p-n junction's properties are due to the energy band bending
that happens as a result of lining up the Fermi levels in contacting regions
of p-type and n-type material.

This effect is shown in a band diagram. The band diagram typically

indicates the variation in the valence band and conduction band edges
versus some spatial dimension, often denoted x. The Fermi energy is also
usually indicated in the diagram. Sometimes the intrinsic Fermi energy,
Ei, which is the Fermi level in the absence of doping, is shown. These
diagrams are useful in explaining the operation of many kinds of
semiconductor devices.
Preparation of semiconductor materials
Semiconductors with predictable, reliable electronic properties are
necessary for mass production. The level of chemical purity needed is

extremely high because the presence of impurities even in very small

proportions can have large effects on the properties of the material. A
high degree of crystalline perfection is also required, since faults in
crystal structure (such as dislocations, twins, and stacking faults) interfere
with the semiconducting properties of the material. Crystalline faults are
a major cause of defective semiconductor devices. The larger the crystal,
the more difficult it is to achieve the necessary perfection. Current mass
production processes use crystal ingots between four and twelve inches
(300 mm) in diameter which are grown as cylinders and sliced into
Because of the required level of chemical purity, and the perfection of the
crystal structure which are needed to make semiconductor devices,









semiconductor material. A technique for achieving high purity includes

growing the crystal using the Czochralski process. An additional step that
can be used to further increase purity is known as zone refining. In zone
refining, part of a solid crystal is melted. The impurities tend to
concentrate in the melted region, while the desired material recrystalizes
leaving the solid material more pure and with fewer crystalline faults.
Donor: impurity atom that increases n
Acceptor: impurity atom that increases p
N-type material: contains more electrons than holes
P-type material: contains more holes than electrons
Majority carrier: the most abundant carrier
Minority carrier: the least abundant carrier
intrinsic semiconductor: n = p = ni
extrinsic semiconductor: doped semiconductor