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Semiconductor, solid or liquid material, able to conduct electricity at room temperature more readily than an insulator, but less easily than a metal. Electrical conductivity, which is the ability to conduct electrical current under the application of a voltage, has one of the widest ranges of values of any physical property of matter. Such metals as copper, silver, and aluminum are excellent conductors, but such insulators as diamond and glass are very poor conductors. At low temperatures, pure semiconductors behave like insulators. Under higher temperatures or light or with the addition of impurities, however, the conductivity of semiconductors can be increased dramatically, reaching levels that may approach those of metals. The physical properties of semiconductors are studied in solid-state physics.

 Conduction Electrons and Holes

The common semiconductors include chemical elements and compounds such as silicon, germanium; selenium, gallium arsenide, zinc selenide, and lead telluride. The increase in conductivity with temperature, light, or impurities arises from an increase in the number of conduction electrons, which are the carriers of the electrical current. In a pure, or intrinsic, semiconductor such as silicon, the valence electrons, or outer electrons, of an atom are paired and shared between atoms to make a covalent bond that holds the crystal together .These valence electrons are not free to carry electrical current. To produce conduction electrons, temperature or light is used to excite the valence electrons out of their bonds, leaving them free to conduct current. Deficiencies, or "holes," are left behind that contribute to the flow of electricity. (These holes are said to be carriers of positive electricity.) This is the physical origin of the increase in the electrical conductivity of semiconductors with temperature. The energy required to excite the electron and hole is called the energy gap.


Another method to produce free carriers of electricity is to add impurities to, or to "dope," the semiconductor. The difference in the number of valence electrons between the doping material, or dopant (either donors or acceptors of electrons), and host gives rise to negative (n-type) or positive (p-type) carriers of electricity. This concept is illustrated in the accompanying diagram of a doped silicon (Si) crystal. Each silicon atom has four valence electrons (represented by dots); two are required to form a covalent bond. In n- type silicon, atoms such as phosphorus (P) with five valence electrons replace some silicon and provide extra negative electrons. In p-type silicon, atoms with three valence electrons such as aluminum (Al) lead to a deficiency of electrons, or to holes, which act as positive electrons. The extra electrons or holes can conduct electricity.

 When p-type and n-type semiconductor regions are adjacent to each other, they form a semiconductor diode, and the region of contact is called a p-n junction. (A diode is a two-terminal device that has a high resistance to electric current in one direction but a low resistance in the other direction.) The conductance properties of the p-n junction depend on the direction of the voltage, which can, in turn, be used to control the electrical nature of the device. Series of such junctions are used to make transistors and other semiconductor devices such as solar cells, p-n junction lasers, rectifiers, and many others. Semiconductor devices have many varied applications in electrical engineering. Recent engineering developments have yielded small semiconductor chips containing hundreds of thousands of transistors. These chips have made possible great miniaturization of electronic devices. More efficient use of such chips has been developed through what is called complementary metal-oxide semiconductor circuitry, or CMOS, which consists of pairs of p- and n-channel transistors controlled by a single circuit. In addition, extremely small devices are being made using the technique of molecular-beam epitaxy .