Semiconductor for Dummies

August 30, 2022
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Semiconductors are used extensively in electronic circuits. As its name implies, a semiconductor is a material that conducts current, but only partly. The conductivity of a semiconductor is somewhere between that of an insulator, which has almost no conductivity, and a conductor, which has almost full conductivity. Most semiconductors are crystals made of certain materials, most commonly silicon.

To understand how semiconductors work, you must first understand a little about how electrons are organized in an atom. The electrons in an atom are organized in layers. These layers are called shells. The outermost shell is called the valence shell.

The electrons in this shell are the ones that form bonds with neighboring atoms. Such bonds are called covalent bonds. Most conductors have just one electron in the valence shell. Semiconductors, on the other hand, typically have four electrons in their valence shell.

If all the neighboring atoms are of the same type, it's possible for all the valence electrons to bind with valence electrons from other atoms. When that happens, the atoms arrange themselves into structures called crystals. Semiconductors are made out of such crystals, usually silicon crystals.

Here, each circle represents a silicon atom, and the lines between the atoms represent the shared electrons. Each of the four valence electrons in each silicon atom is shared with one neighboring silicon atom. Thus, each silicon atom is bonded with four other silicon atoms.


Pure silicon crystals are not all that useful electronically. But if you introduce small amounts of other elements into a crystal, the crystal starts to conduct in an interesting way.

The process of deliberately introducing other elements into a crystal is called doping. The element introduced by doping is called a dopant. By carefully controlling the doping process and the dopants that are used, silicon crystals can transform into one of two distinct types of conductors:

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