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How Do Semiconductors Work?

Semiconductors are a material with properties that fall between a good conductor (like metals) and a good insulator (like rubber). Depending on the conditions, semiconductors can be conductive or insulating. This ability to control the flow of electrical current in modern electrical devices, such as microchips and photovoltaics.

Properties of Semiconductors

To understand how semiconductors work, you must understand the fundamental properties of solids.

Electrons that are tied to an atom in a solid are confined to energy bands. The valence band is occupied by electrons when the temperature of the solid is absolute zero. In this band, electrons are tightly bound to parent atoms through strong covalent or ionic bonds, making it difficult for them to move freely. The conduction band, on the other hand, contains electrons that gain sufficient energy to break free from the bonds to move more freely. The energy gap between the valence and the conduction band is known as the band gap. The band gap of a material determines many of the optical and electronic properties.


Conductors have overlapping valence and conduction bands. The band gap is almost non-existent so electrons can easily break free of the atom and move throughout the material. These materials can conduct electricity and heat easily.


Insulators have a very large band gap. A large amount of energy is needed for electrons to move from the valence band to the conduction band. This is unlikely to happen at room temperature, so these materials will not conduct heat or electricity.


The band gap of semiconductors lies in-between that of conductors and insulators. It is large enough so that electrons do not ordinarily flow freely through the material. However, when excited by external factors like heat or light, some of the valence electrons gain enough energy to jump to the conduction band, creating ‘holes’ in the valence band. The creation of free electrons and ‘holes’ is very important for many applications, including photovoltaics, LEDs, and transistors.

Solids properties - band gaps for conductors, semiconductors and insulators
Band gaps for conductors, semiconductors, and insulators.

How Does a Semiconductor Work?

For a semiconductor to manipulate electricity in a device, two requirements must be met:

  • There should be an imbalance of electrons across a semiconductor.
  • Under certain conditions e.g., applied heat or light, electrons should be able to move freely throughout the semiconductor.

A p-n junction is the most basic kind of semiconductor device. N-type and P-type semiconductors are joined to create a p-n junction diode. One side is more negative and the other is more positive, creating imbalance across the device. The mid-point where the semiconductors meet is the junction. Electrons can move across the junction to the positive side of the diode. This creates a neutrally charged area at the junction called the depletion zone.

The size of the depletion zone affects how easy or difficult it is for electrons to move through the semiconductor. When a voltage is applied, the depletion region will decrease enabling electrons to flow in a single direction. If the potential difference is reversed, the depletion zone becomes wider, making it more difficult for electrons to cross the junction. This is known as reverse bias. It acts as a one-way switch, which is useful in devices such as transistors.


Transistors, essential in modern technology, consist of three semiconductors joined together. They are used in switching and amplification devices, allowing current to be turned off or amplified through the device. Transistors are used in various electronic devices, including telecommunications systems, computer memory chips, and multimedia storage devices.


Silicon is commonly used in semiconductor devices. However, naturally occurring silicon is electrically inert. Sitting between carbon and germanium on the periodic table, these elements have much in common. Each have four electrons in their outer orbital shells which can form covalent bonds with the outer shell electrons of surrounding atoms. As a result, they can form a crystalline structure.

Despite the metallic appearance of silicon crystals, they are not metals. Like their carbonic counterparts, they are very stable. In fact, the lack of free moving electrons within this material renders it more like an insulator than a metal.

Other materials can be added to increase the electrical potentiality of silicon. In a process called doping, impurities are introduced to the material to alter its physicochemical properties. These impurities are often atoms with either 3 or 5 electrons in their valence band. The imbalance created allows for the free movement of electrons within the material. There are two ways of doping silicon: N-type doping, and P-type doping.

N-Type Doping

Impurities with five electrons (pentavalent) in their outer shell are added to the silicon crystal structure. This results in an unbound ‘free’ electron.

N-type stands for ‘negative’ due to the extra electrons.

P-Type Doping

Impurities with three electrons (trivalent) in their outer shell are added to the silicon crystal structure. Three of the electrons can bond with silicon outer shell electrons leaving a ‘hole’. These spare holes enable electrical conductivity in the materials as they are able to accept free moving electrons once a current is flowing.

P-type stands for ‘positive’ to remind us that this material has a lesser number of electrons.

Contributing Authors

Written by

Dr. Nicola Williams

Professional Science Writer

Reviewed and edited by

Dr. Mary O'Kane

Application Scientist

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