A semiconductor is a solid whose electrical conductivity can be controlled over a wide range, either permanently or dynamically. Semiconductors are tremendously important technologically and economically. Silicon is the most commercially important semiconductor, though dozens of others are important as well.
Semiconductor devices, electronic components made of semiconductor materials, are essential in modern electrical devices, from computers to cellular phones to digital audio players.
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 flow. In semiconductors at room temperature, just as in insulators, very few electrons gain enough thermal energy to leap the band gap, which is necessary for conduction. For this reason, pure semiconductors and insulators, in the absence of applied fields, have roughly similar electrical properties. The smaller bandgaps of semiconductors, however, allow for many other means besides temperature to control their electrical properties.
Semiconductors' intrinsic electrical properties are very often permanently modified by introducing impurities, in a process known as doping. Usually it is reasonable 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 dopants, semiconductors conduct electricity nearly as well as metals. Depending on kind of the impurity, a region of semiconductor can have more electrons or holes, and then it is called N-type or P-type semiconductor, respectively. Junctions between regions of N- and P-type semiconductors have built-in electric fields, which cause electrons and holes to escape from them, and are critical to semiconductor device operation. Also, a density difference of impurities produces in the region small electric field which is used to accelerate non-equilibrium electrons or holes in it.
In addition to permanent modification through doping, the electrical properties of semiconductors are often dynamically modified by applying electric fields. The ability to control conductivity in small and well-defined regions of semiconductor material, both statically through doping and dynamically through the application of electric fields, has led to the development of a broad range of semiconductor devices, like transistors. Semiconductor devices with dynamically controlled conductivity are the building blocks of integrated circuits, like the microprocessor. These "active" semiconductor devices are combined with simpler passive components, such as semiconductor capacitors and resistors, to produce a variety of electronic devices.
In certain semiconductors, when electrons 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 from the valence band to the conduction band, facilitating reception of 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.
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 metals because the valence band in the former 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 bandgap that serves as an arbitrary dividing line (roughly 4 eV) 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 neighbouring 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 to destroy 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.
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.
When ionizing radiation strikes a semiconductor, it may excite an electron out of its energy level and consequently leave a hole. This process is known as electron–hole pair generation. Electron-hole pairs are constantly generated from thermal energy as well, in the absence of any external energy source.
Electron-hole pairs are also apt to recombine. Conservation of energy demands that these recombination events, in which an electron loses an amount of energy larger than the band gap, be accompanied by the emission of thermal energy (in the form of phonons) or radiation (in the form of photons).
In the steady state, the generation and recombination of electron–hole pairs are in equipoise. The number of electron-hole pairs in the steady state at a given temperature is determined by quantum statistical mechanics. The precise quantum mechanical mechanisms of generation and recombination are governed by conservation of energy and conservation of momentum.
As probability that electrons and holes meet together is proportional to the product of their amounts, the product is in steady state nearly constant at a given temperature, providing that there is no significant electric field (which might "flush" carriers of both types, or move them from neighbour regions containing more of them to meet together) or externally driven pair generation. The product is a function of the temperature, as the probability of getting enough thermal energy to produce a pair increases with temperature, being approximately 1/exp(band gap / kT), where k is Boltzmann's constant and T is absolute temperature.
The probability of meeting is increased by carrier traps – impurities or dislocations which can trap an electron or hole and hold it until a pair is completed. Such carrier traps are sometimes purposely added to reduce the time needed to reach the steady state.
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. (The donor atoms introduce some states under, but very close to the conduction band edge. Electrons at these states can be easily excited to conduction band, becoming free electrons, at room temperature.) 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 carrier.
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 V) 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 allows 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 material.
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.