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Semiconductors Back-to-basics: The workings and applications of semiconductors

| Editor: Erika Granath

Thanks to semiconductors, the world is a safer, smarter and more convenient place. But what are they made of, what do they do, and where are they found?

Semiconductors have had a monumental impact on our society.
Semiconductors have had a monumental impact on our society.
(Source: ©industrieblick - stock.adobe.com)

Without semiconductors, our world would look much more like it did in the late 1950s or early 1960s; we would have no electronic hand calculators, microwave ovens, digital alarm clocks, cellphones, tablets, personal computers, electronically controlled transmissions or washing machines.

What are semiconductors and what do they do?

Semiconductors are the backbone of the information technology and modern electronics industries⁠—and therefore of our society as we know it. Without them, the vast majority of the electronic devices prevalent today would not exist. Despite its status as an essential building block of any electronic device, a semiconductor’s purpose is relatively simple: to allow an amplified current to move along a circuit board, which in turn enables the elements on the circuit board to be powered. Semiconductors are typically made of an insulating material such as silicon, and often have atom-sized impurities mixed in during the production process (known as “doping”) to influence their conductivity depending on the application.

A brief history of semiconductor technology

Semiconductors revolutionized the electronics industry back when the first transistor was developed in the 1940s, as they enabled signals to be amplified to such an extent that they powered an electrical circuit. Scientists soon discovered that semiconductors could be reduced in size, paving the way for the development of computer processors, memory chips, integrated circuits and systems on a chip (SoC). While these devices have gradually became more complex, rugged, efficient and reliable, it’s their reduction in size above all (to a matter of nanometers) that’s enabled a host of technologies to become smaller and more powerful. These technologies, in turn, have opened the door to most of the communication, transportation, entertainment, industry and medical innovations that have helped to shape society over the past 70 years.

Types, groups and classifications

The majority of semiconductor materials are inorganic, and can be divided into two basic groups: intrinsic, where purity is retained, and extrinsic, which are “doped” with impurities to affect the material’s conductivity. They can also be divided by type, namely N-type and P-type. In semiconductors, electrons move across the substrate to holes as part of the process of electrical conductance. N-type semiconductors are made by doping the material with an electron donor element, meaning there are more electrons than holes. In this case, the electrons are known as the majority carriers and the holes as the minority carriers. In P-type semiconductors, the holes are the majority carriers, while the electrons are the minority carriers.

With the advent of the metal-oxide-semiconductor process in the late 1950s, which enabled semiconductors to be miniaturized for the first time, silicon became the most commonly used element in their production. This is due to its ease of production and strong electrical and mechanical characteristics. Other semiconductor materials include: gallium arsenide, which is used in radio-frequency modules and is difficult to produce; germanium, which was used in early transistor technology (along with lead sulfide); silicon carbide; gallium phosphide; and cadmium sulfide.

One semiconductor material that’s gaining ground in the field of electronics is gallium nitride (GaN). Hailed as the silicon of the future, gallium nitride semiconductors are highly temperature resistant, conduct more current, improve power density and are more efficient overall. The material has found major support within the aerospace industry, and is now increasingly being used in household appliances and road vehicles.

A constant companion in everyday life

Once reserved for televisions and radios, semiconductors are now unavoidable in day-to-day life. From making toast in the morning to switching on a light, checking the weather or reading an e-book, even the most banal activities are made possible thanks to semiconductors. They’re the reason why smartphones are more powerful than the supercomputers of 20 years ago, why cars will soon be able to drive themselves, and why it’s possible to communicate with people instantly all over the world. Semiconductors are as critical to modern life as air or water—and with artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced wireless networks on the horizon, their importance won’t be diminishing any time soon.

Fun Fact

It’s a little known fact that Britney Spears is an expert in semiconductor physics. (Yes, you read that right.) Britney Spears knows the ins and outs of the vital laser components that have made it possible to hear her super music in a digital format.

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