AskDefine | Define semiconductor

Dictionary Definition



1 a substance as germanium or silicon whose electrical conductivity is intermediate between that of a metal and an insulator; its conductivity increases with temperature and in the presence of impurities [syn: semiconducting material]
2 a conductor made with semiconducting material [syn: semiconductor device, semiconductor unit]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A substance with electrical properties intermediate between a good conductor and a good insulator.

Related terms


substance with electrical properties

Extensive Definition

A semiconductor is a solid material that has electrical conductivity in between that of a conductor and that of an insulator; it can vary over that wide range either permanently or dynamically. Semiconductors are tremendously important in technology. Semiconductor devices, electronic components made of semiconductor materials, are essential in modern electrical devices. Examples range from computers to cellular phones to digital audio players. Silicon is used to create most semiconductors commercially, but dozens of other materials are used as well.


Semiconductors are very similar to insulators. The two categories of solids differ primarily in that insulators have larger band gaps — energies that electrons must acquire to be free to move from atom to atom. In semiconductors at room temperature, just as in insulators, very few electrons gain enough thermal energy to leap the band gap from the valence band to the conduction band, which is necessary for electrons to be available for electric current conduction. For this reason, pure semiconductors and insulators in the absence of applied electric fields, have roughly similar resistance. The smaller bandgaps of semiconductors, however, allow for other means besides temperature to control their electrical properties.
Semiconductors' intrinsic electrical properties are often permanently modified by introducing impurities by a process known as doping. Usually, it is sufficient to approximate that each impurity atom adds one electron or one "hole" (a concept to be discussed later) that may flow freely. Upon the addition of a sufficiently large proportion of impurity dopants, semiconductors will conduct electricity nearly as well as metals. Depending on the kind of impurity, a doped region of semiconductor can have more electrons or holes, and is named N-type or P-type semiconductor material, respectively. Junctions between regions of N- and P-type semiconductors create electric fields, which cause electrons and holes to be available to move away from them, and this effect is critical to semiconductor device operation. Also, a density difference in the amount of impurities produces a small electric field in the region which is used to accelerate non-equilibrium electrons or holes.
In addition to permanent modification through doping, the resistance of semiconductors is normally modified dynamically by applying electric fields. The ability to control resistance/conductivity in regions of semiconductor material dynamically through the application of electric fields is the feature that makes semiconductors useful. It has led to the development of a broad range of semiconductor devices, like transistors and diodes. Semiconductor devices that have dynamically controllable conductivity, such as transistors, are the building blocks of integrated circuits devices like the microprocessor. These "active" semiconductor devices (transistors) are combined with passive components implemented from semiconductor material such as capacitors and resistors, to produce complete electronic circuits.
In most semiconductors, when electrons lose enough energy to fall from the conduction band to the valence band (the energy levels above and below the band gap), they often emit light. This photoemission process underlies the light-emitting diode (LED) and the semiconductor laser, both of which are very important commercially. Conversely, semiconductor absorption of light in photodetectors excites electrons to move from the valence band to the higher energy conduction band, thus facilitating detection of light and vary with its intensity. This is useful for fiber optic communications, and providing the basis for energy from solar cells.
Semiconductors may be elemental materials such as silicon and germanium, or compound semiconductors such as gallium arsenide and indium phosphide, or alloys such as silicon germanium or aluminium gallium arsenide.

Band structure

details Electronic band structure
delocalized orbits across two atoms, a so called covalent bond. Due to Paulis principle in every state there is max one electron. 's principle leads to zero net current. Current due to uneven filling needs an energy investment. ]]
There are three popular ways to describe the electronic structure of a crystal. The first starts from single atoms. An atom has discrete energy levels. When two atoms come close each energy level splits into an upper and a lower level, whereby they delocalize across the two atoms. With more atoms the number of levels increases, and groups of levels form bands. Semiconductors contain many bands. If there is a large distance between the highest occupied state and the lowest unoccupied space, then a gap will likely remain between occupied and unoccupied bands even after band formation.
A second way starts with free electrons waves. When fading in an electrostatic potential due to the cores, due to Bragg reflection some waves are reflected and cannot penetrate the bulk, that is a band gap opens. In this description it is not clear, while the number of electrons fills up exactly all states below the gap.
A third description starts with two atoms. The split states form a covalent bond where two electrons with spin up and spin down are mostly in between the two atoms. Adding more atoms now is supposed not to lead to splitting, but to more bonds. This is the way silicon is typically drawn. The band gap is now formed by lifting one electron from the lower electron level into the upper level. This level is known to be anti-bonding, but bulk silicon has not been seen to lose atoms as easy as electrons are wandering through it. Also this model is most unsuitable to explain how in graded hetero-junction the band gap can vary smoothly.
Like in other solids, the electrons in semiconductors can have energies only within certain bands (ie. ranges of levels of energy) 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 (closer to the nucleus) are full, up to a particular band called the valence band. Semiconductors and insulators are distinguished from metals because the valence band in the semiconductor materials is very nearly full under usual operating conditions, thus causing more electrons to be available in the conduction band.
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 bandgap that serves as an arbitrary dividing line (roughly 4 eV) between semiconductors and insulators.
In the picture of covalent bonds, an electron moves by hopping to a neighboring bond. Because of the Pauli exclusion principle it has to be lifted into the higher anti-bonding state of that bond. In the picture of delocalized states, for example in one dimension that is in a wire, for every energy there is a state with electrons flowing in one direction and one state for the electrons flowing in the other. For a net current to flow some more states for one direction then for the other direction have to be occupied and for this energy is needed. For a metal this can be a very small energy in the semiconductor the next higher states lie above the band gap. Often this is stated as: full bands do not contribute to the electrical conductivity. However, as the temperature of a semiconductor rises above absolute zero, there is more energy in the semiconductor to spend on lattice vibration and — more importantly for us — on lifting some electrons into an energy 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.
One covalent bond between neighboring atoms in the solid is ten times stronger than the binding of the single electron to the atom, so freeing the electron does not imply destruction of the crystal structure.
The notion of holes, which was introduced for semiconductors, can also be applied to metals, where the Fermi level lies within the conduction band. With most metals the Hall effect reveals electrons to be the charge carriers, but some metals have a mostly filled conduction band, and the Hall effect reveals positive charge carriers, which are not the ion-cores, but holes. Contrast this to some conductors like solutions of salts, or plasma. In the case of a metal, 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. Sometimes even in this case it may be said that a hole was left behind, to explain why the electron does not fall back to lower energies: It cannot find a hole. In the end in both materials electron-phonon scattering and defects are the dominant causes for resistance.
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 E_B and is relatively small. For example, the E_B for boron in silicon bulk is 0.045 eV, compared with silicon's band gap of about 1.12 eV. Because E_B 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 wafers.
Because of the required level of chemical purity and the perfection of the crystal structure which are needed to make semiconductor devices, special methods have been developed to produce the initial 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.
In manufacturing semiconductor devices involving heterojunctions between different semiconductor materials, the lattice constant, which is the length of the repeating element of the crystal structure, is important for determining the compatibility of materials.


  • Device Electronics for Integrated Circuits
  • Physics of Semiconductor Devices (2nd ed.)
  • The Essential Guide to Semiconductors
  • Fundamentals of Semiconductors : Physics and Materials Properties
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