By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe what occurs when n- and p-type materials are joined together using the concept of diffusion and drift current (zero applied voltage)
- Explain the response of a p-n junction to a forward and reverse bias voltage
- Describe the function of a transistor in an electric circuit
- Use the concept of a p-n junction to explain its applications in audio amplifiers and computers
Semiconductor technology has been a driver of the computing, information technology, mobile device, and related industries. The transistor — a device that can amplify or switch electrical signals — is the key component. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a number of discoveries and inventions demonstrated the promise of this technology. Researchers William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain invented the first working transistor, and followed up with several other advances. Soon after, their colleague Mohammad M. Atalla developed a surface process that significantly improved transistor performance, and enabled researchers (and eventually manufacturers) to utilize silicon as the primary material. With Dawon Kahng, Atalla went on to invent a specific type of transistor, the MOSFET, which could be miniaturized and therefore incorporated into a high-density integrated circuit (abbreviated ic). Chih-Tang Sah and Frank Wanlass built on this work by developing a MOSFET circuit fabrication method that would become (and still is) the dominant way to manufacture microprocessors.
The results of these efforts were widespread and immediate. Smaller and more efficient computing devices led to advances in arenas ranging from spaceflight (where every gram counts) to wristwatches to radios. Computers became smaller and smaller, enabling businesses and everyday consumers to own them and eventually carry them in their pockets in the form of smartphones. These changes have all been driven by silicon semiconductors, leading a region known for electronics to be renamed Silicon Valley.
We describe two basic semiconductor devices below.
Perhaps the simplest device that can be created with a semiconductor is a diode. A diode is a circuit element that allows electric current to flow in only one direction, like a one-way valve (see Model of Conduction in Metals). A diode is created by joining a p-type semiconductor to an n-type semiconductor (Figure 9.23). The junction between these materials is called a p-n junction. A comparison of the energy bands of a silicon-based diode is shown in Figure 9.23(b). The positions of the valence and conduction bands are the same, but the impurity levels are quite different. When a p-n junction is formed, electrons from the conduction band of the n-type material diffuse to the p-side, where they combine with holes in the valence band. This migration of charge leaves positive ionized donor ions on the n-side and negative ionized acceptor ions on the p-side, producing a narrow double layer of charge at the p-n junction called the depletion layer. The electric field associated with the depletion layer prevents further diffusion. The potential energy for electrons across the p-n junction is given by Figure 9.24.
The behavior of a semiconductor diode can now be understood. If the positive side of the battery is connected to the n-type material, the depletion layer is widened, and the potential energy difference across the p-n junction is increased. Few or none of the electrons (holes) have enough energy to climb the potential barrier, and current is significantly reduced. This is called the reverse bias configuration. On the other hand, if the positive side of a battery is connected to the p-type material, the depletion layer is narrowed, the potential energy difference across the p-n junction is reduced, and electrons (holes) flow easily. This is called the forward bias configuration of the diode. In sum, the diode allows current to flow freely in one direction but prevents current flow in the opposite direction. In this sense, the semiconductor diode is a one-way valve.
We can estimate the mathematical relationship between the current and voltage for a diode using the electric potential concept. Consider N negatively charged majority carriers (electrons donated by impurity atoms) in the n-type material and a potential barrier V across the p-n junction. According to the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, the fraction of electrons that have enough energy to diffuse across the potential barrier is . However, if a battery of voltage is applied in the forward-bias configuration, this fraction improves to . The electric current due to the majority carriers from the n-side to the p-side is therefore
where is the current with no applied voltage and T is the temperature. Current due to the minority carriers (thermal excitation of electrons from the valence band to the conduction band on the p-side and subsequent attraction to the n-side) is , independent of the bias voltage. The net current is therefore
A sample graph of the current versus bias voltage is given in Figure 9.25. In the forward bias configuration, small changes in the bias voltage lead to large changes in the current. In the reverse bias configuration, the current is . For extreme values of reverse bias, the atoms in the material are ionized which triggers an avalanche of current. This case occurs at the breakdown voltage.
Diode CurrentAttaching the positive end of a battery to the p-side and the negative end to the n-side of a semiconductor diode produces a current of The reverse saturation current is (The reverse saturation current is the current of a diode in a reverse bias configuration such as this.) The battery voltage is 0.12 V. What is the diode temperature?
StrategyThe first arrangement is a forward bias configuration, and the second is the reverse bias configuration. In either case, Equation 9.2 gives the current.
SolutionThe current in the forward and reverse bias configurations is given by
The current with no bias is related to the reverse saturation current by
Equation 9.2 can be written as
This ratio is much greater than one, so the second term on the left-hand side of the equation vanishes. Taking the natural log of both sides gives
The temperature is therefore
SignificanceThe current moving through a diode in the forward and reverse bias configuration is sensitive to the temperature of the diode. If the potential energy supplied by the battery is large compared to the thermal energy of the diode’s surroundings, then the forward bias current is very large compared to the reverse saturation current.
Check Your Understanding 9.5
How does the magnitude of the forward bias current compare with the reverse bias current?
Create a p-n junction and observe the behavior of a simple circuit for forward and reverse bias voltages. Visit this site to learn more about semiconductor diodes.
If diodes are one-way valves, transistors are one-way valves that can be carefully opened and closed to control current. A special kind of transistor is a junction transistor. A junction transistor has three parts, including an n-type semiconductor, also called the emitter; a thin p-type semiconductor, which is the base; and another n-type semiconductor, called the collector (Figure 9.26). When a positive terminal is connected to the p-type layer (the base), a small current of electrons, called the base current flows to the terminal. This causes a large collector current to flow through the collector. The base current can be adjusted to control the large collector current. The current gain is therefore
A junction transistor can be used to amplify the voltage from a microphone to drive a loudspeaker. In this application, sound waves cause a diaphragm inside the microphone to move in and out rapidly (Figure 9.27). When the diaphragm is in the “in” position, a tiny positive voltage is applied to the base of the transistor. This opens the transistor “valve” and allows a large electrical current flow to the loudspeaker. When the diaphragm is in the “out” position, a tiny negative voltage is applied to the base of the transistor, which shuts off the transistor valve so that no current flows to the loudspeaker. This shuts the transistor “valve” off so no current flows to the loudspeaker. In this way, current to the speaker is controlled by the sound waves, and the sound is amplified. Any electric device that amplifies a signal is called an amplifier.
In modern electronic devices, digital signals are used with diodes and transistors to perform tasks such as data manipulation. Electric circuits carry two types of electrical signals: analog and digital (Figure 9.28). An analog signal varies continuously, whereas a digital signal switches between two fixed voltage values, such as plus 1 volt and zero volts. In digital circuits like those found in computers, a transistor behaves like an on-off switch. The transistor is either on, meaning the valve is completely open, or it is off, meaning the valve is completely closed. Integrated circuits contain vast collections of transistors on a single piece of silicon. They are designed to handle digital signals that represent ones and zeroes, which is also known as binary code. The invention of the ic helped to launch the modern computer revolution.