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Semiconductors

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Semiconductors are extensively used to build electronics and are the foundation of the global semiconductor industry.

A semiconductor is a solid substance that typically has conductivity between that of an insulator and that of most metals like copper or gold. The most common type of semiconductor material is crystalline silicon, which is made available in the form of thin, polished wafers.

There are two main types of semiconductors, p-type and n-type. These are fabricated next to each other and in different configurations to build semiconductor devices like p-n junctions or p-n-p transistors. Each configuration possesses unique electrical properties useful in different electronic devices.

This video will present the basic principles of semiconductor materials and properties of p-n junctions in the form of a diode. Next, it will illustrate a step-by-step protocol to characterize a diode, followed by some real-world applications of semiconductors.

Most pure or intrinsic semiconductors, like silicon, are not outstanding electrical conductors. This is because each silicon atom has four electrons in its valence or outermost shell. It shares these electrons with neighboring silicon atoms to form covalent bonds, creating a lattice structure devoid of free electrons. Thus a semiconductor is made more conductive by addition of impurities, a process also known as doping, to form doped or extrinsic semiconductors.

These impurities are of two types: donors and acceptors. "Donors", like phosphorus and arsenic, have five electrons in their valence shell. Four of these are used to form covalent bonds with adjacent silicon atoms. The remaining one electron is then free to move through the lattice. This type of doped semiconductor, in which electrons are the dominant charge carriers, is called an n-type semiconductor.

Now if the impurity is an acceptor molecule, like boron or aluminum, the result is different. These acceptors have only three electrons in their valence shell. Therefore, when an acceptor atom forms bonds with the surrounding silicon atoms, it leaves behind a region of positive charge called a "hole" that effectively behaves as a positively charged electron. The hole is now free to move through the lattice. This type of doped semiconductor, in which holes are the majority charge carriers, is called a p-type semiconductor.

Now, when a region on a single semiconductor crystal or a wafer is doped with donor atoms, and an adjacent region is doped with acceptor atoms, a p-n junction is formed. The interface between the p- and the n-regions is called the junction boundary.

At the junction boundary, the excess electrons in the n-region diffuse towards the p-region, and simultaneously the excess holes in the p-region diffuse towards the n-region.

As a result of this diffusion, the donor atoms in the n-region become immobile positive ions, while the acceptor atoms in the p-region become immobile negatively charged ions. Thus, at the boundary between the p and n-regions, a "depletion region" that is deficient in mobile electrons and holes is formed.

The negative ions in the p-type depletion region repel the electrons that diffuse from the n-region to the p-region, while the positive ions in the n-type depletion region repel the holes that diffuse from the p-region to the n-region.

In other words, the electric field from the build-up of ions in the depletion region effectively blocks the current from flowing across the junction. However, current can be made to flow again by applying a voltage across the intersection.

If a positive voltage drop is applied, also known as "forward-bias", the width of the depletion region reduces, decreasing the region's electric field, due to which electrons and holes jump across the junction, and thus current flows through the configuration.

Conversely, if a negative voltage drop is applied across the junction, known as "reverse-bias", then the depletion region width increases. This in turn increases the region's electric field strength and resistance to flow of electrons and holes across the junction.

Current thus flows only in one direction through a p-n junction. The Shockley diode equation can be used to calculate this current as a function of the diode's voltage drop and temperature. Here, 'e' is the electronic charge, 'n' is an ideality factor that characterizes how a real diode performs relative to an ideal diode, 'Kb' is the Boltzmann's constant, and 'Isat' is the small leakage current that flows through the device even when it is reverse biased.

Having completed the basics, let us now review a step-by-step protocol to characterize a p-n junction. First obtain the necessary materials and instruments, namely a semiconductor diode, a light-emitting diode or LED, a power source, two digital multimeters, a 1 kilo-ohm resistor, some banana cables and connectors, and a thermometer.

Look at the semiconductor diode and verify that there is a red terminal and a black terminal. The black terminal is called the cathode and the red terminal is the anode.

Next, connect the resistor in series with the anode of the diode. Then, using the banana cables, connect the positive terminal of the power source to the unconnected end of the resistor. Next connect the cathode of the diode to the positive terminal of an ammeter and the ammeter's negative terminal to the negative terminal of the power source to complete the circuit to complete the circuit.

The diode is now forward-biased. Record the temperature of the room. Next, set the power supply to feed +5 volts direct current through the circuit.

As the diode is forward-biased, there should be a current flowing through the circuit, and a voltage drop across the diode.

Next, connect the positive lead of a second multimeter on the anode of the diode, and the negative lead on the cathode. Ensure the multimeter is in voltmeter mode and measure the voltage drop. Also, note the current as recorded by the ammeter.

Now, adjust the power supply to generate a different voltage and record the corresponding drop across the diode using the voltmeter, and the current through it using the ammeter.

Also, note the ambient temperature for each reading, and repeat the protocol for a range of diode voltages.

Once all the measurements are recorded, disconnect the voltmeter and turn OFF the power supply. Keeping everything else the same, flip the diode so that the anode and cathode connections are now reversed and the diode is connected in the reverse bias mode.

Turn ON the power supply, and reconnect the voltmeter across the diode, with the positive lead of the multimeter connected to the anode of the diode and the negative lead to the cathode.

Record the voltage drop across the diode, the temperature and the current flowing through the diode for a range of diode voltages. Turn off the power supply and disconnect the diode.

Lastly, connect an LED in place of the diode, and observe the LED in both forward and reverse bias configurations for a range of voltage drops.

With the protocol now complete, let's review the results of both the forward and reverse-bias experiment using both the diode and the LED. First, calculate the current passing through the diode for the various voltage drops using the Shockley diode equation and the manufacturer provided Isat value. For example, for a temperature of 293 kelvin and a measured diode voltage of 555 milli-volts, the current through the diode can be calculated to be 0.913 milli-amperes.

Typical results for the circuit measurements with the diode connected in forward and reverse bias are listed in the table. The calculated and measured current is plotted as a function of the measured diode voltage. This is called the "Characteristic curve" of the diode.

The plot shows the exponential dependence of both the measured and calculated currents on the diode voltage. Specifically, it is observed that when the diode is forward biased, it allows the current to flow through.

But when the diode is reverse biased, no current flows through it, effectively making it a valve that only permits current flow in one direction. The tiny current that still manages to flow, even when the diode is reverse-biased, is the saturation current.

Semiconductors form the basis of the entire electronics industry ranging from the simple LEDs used in our television displays to the complex super-computers used for scientific data handling purposes.

Semiconductors are used to not only build p-n junctions or diodes, but also transistors, which are n-p-n or p-n-p junctions. These transistors are the basis of all modern electronics, as they can be used to construct logic gates, which are circuits that can perform basic Boolean logical operations such as AND, OR, NOT, and NAND. These logical operations can be combined as needed to perform more complex operations such as digital addition and multiplication. It can even be used to build computer processors and memory.

Semiconductor materials can also be used to generate light for application in optical electronics. For example, a light emitting diode or LED is a p-n junction that emits light when activated. When a suitable voltage is applied to it, electrons recombine with holes within the device, releasing energy in the form of light.

LEDs made from semiconductors are more energy-efficient light sources than the traditional incandescent bulb. Therefore, LEDs have found applications in environmental and task lighting, electronic displays and advanced communications technology.

You've just watched JoVE's introduction to semiconductors. You should now understand the basics of semiconductors and the principles, workings and characteristics of the p-n junction. Thanks for watching!

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