A semiconductor is a solid whose electrical conductivity is in between that of a conductor and that of an insulator, and can be controlled over a 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.
Overview 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 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, a quantum of energy in the visible electromagnetic spectrum. 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 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 (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.