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Now we come to what is probably the most important discovery in electronics in the last hundred years. Without this discovery we wouldn't have televisions, computers, space rockets or transistor radios. Unfortunately it's also one of the hardest areas to understand in electronics. But don't lose heart, read the section through a few times until you've grasped the ideas.

Here goes.

Recall that the reason that metals are such good conductors is that they have lots of electrons which are so loosely held that they're easily able to move when a voltage is applied. Insulators have fixed electrons and so are not able to conduct. Certain materials, called semiconductors, are insulators that have a few loose electrons. They are partly able to conduct a current.

The free electrons in semiconductors leave behind a fixed positive charge when they move about (the protons in the atoms they come from). Charged atoms are called ions. The positive ions in semiconductors are able to capture electrons from nearby atoms. When an electron is captured another atom in the semiconductor becomes a positive ion. This behaviour can be thought of as a 'hole' moving about the material, moving in just the same way that electrons move. So now there are two ways of conducting a current through a semiconductor, electrons moving in one direction and holes in the other. There are two kinds of current carriers.

The holes don't really move of course. It is just fixed positive ions grabbing neighbouring electrons, but it appears as if holes are moving.

electrons and holes

In a pure semiconductor there are not enough free electrons and holes to be of much use. Their number can be greatly increased however by adding an impurity, called a donor. If the donor gives up some extra free electrons we get an n-type semiconductor (n for negative). If the donor soaks up some of the free electrons we get a p-type semiconductor (p for positive). In both cases the impurity donates extra current carriers to the semiconductor.

In n-type semiconductors there are more electrons than holes and they are the main current carriers. In p-type semiconductors there are more holes than electrons and they are the main current carriers. The donor atoms become either positive ions (n-type) or negative ions (p-type).

n-type and p-type

The most common semiconductors are silicon (basically sand) and germanium. Common donors are arsenic and phosphorus.

When we combine n-type and p-type semiconductors together we make useful devices, like transistors and diodes and silicon chips.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)

A diode consists of a piece of n-type and a piece of p-type semiconductor joined together to form a junction.

Electrons in the n-type half of the diode are repelled away from the junction by the negative ions in the p-type region, and holes in the p-type half are repelled by the positive ions in the n-type region. A space on either side of the junction is left without either kind of current carriers. This is known as the depletion layer. As there are no current carriers in this layer no current can flow. The depletion layer is, in effect, an insulator.

depletion layer

Now consider what would happen if we connected a small voltage to the diode. Connected one way it would attract the current carriers away from the junction and make the depletion layer wider. Connected the other way it would repel the carriers and drive them towards the junction, so reducing the depletion layer. In neither case would any current flow because there would always be some of the depletion layer left.

depletion layer

Now consider increasing the voltage. In one direction there is still no current because the depletion layer is even wider, but in the other direction the layer disappears completely and current can flow. Above a certain voltage the diode acts like a conductor. As electrons and holes meet each other at the junction they combine and disappear. The battery keeps the diode supplied with current carriers.

diode conducting

Thus a diode is a device which is an insulator in one direction and a conductor in the other. Diodes are extremely useful components. We can stop currents going where we don't want them to go. For example we can protect a circuit against the battery being connected backwards which might otherwise damage it.

Light emitting diodes (LEDs) are special diodes that give out light when they conduct. The fact that they only conduct in one direction is often incidental to their use in a circuit. They are usually just being used as lights. They are small and cheap and they last practically forever, unlike traditional light bulbs which can burn out.

The light comes from the energy given up when electrons combine with holes at the junction. The colour of the light depends on the impurity in the semiconductor. It is easy to make bright red, green and yellow LEDs but technology has not cracked the problem of making cheap blue LEDs yet.


Transistors underpin the whole of modern electronics. They are found everywhere - in watches, calculators, microwaves, hi-fi's. A Pentium(tm) computer chip contains over a million transistors!

Transistors work in two ways. They can work as switches (turning currents on and off) and as amplifiers (making currents bigger). We'll only be looking at them as switches here. To understand them as amplifiers would involve a little mathematics.

Transistors are sandwiches of three pieces of semiconductor material. A thin slice of n-type or p-type semiconductor is sandwiched between two layers of the opposite type. This gives two junctions rather than the one found in a diode. If the thin slice is n-type the transistor is called a p-n-p transistor, and if the thin slice is p-type it is called a n-p-n transistor. The middle layer is always called the base, and the outer two layers are called the collector and the emitter.

We will consider the (more common) n-p-n transistor here, as used in the MadLab circuits. In a n-p-n transistor electrons are the main current carriers (because n-type material predominates).

When no voltage is connected to the base then the transistor is equivalent to two diodes connected back to back. Recall that current can only flow one way through a diode. A pair of back-to-back diodes can't conduct at all.

If a small voltage is applied to the base (enough to remove the depletion layer in the lower junction), current flows from emitter to base like a normal diode. Once current is flowing however it is able to sweep straight through the very thin base region and into the collector. Only a small part of the current flows out of the base. The transistor is now conducting through both junctions. A few of the electrons are consumed by the holes in the p-type region of the base, but most of them go straight through.

transistor conducting

Electrons enter the emitter from the battery and come out of the collector. (Isn't that rather illogical you might say, electrons emitted from the collector? Yes it is, but the parts of a transistor are named with respect to conventional current, an imaginary current which flows in the opposite direction to real electron current.)

Now you can see how a transistor acts as a switch. A small voltage applied to the base switches the transistor on, allowing a current to flow in the rest of the transistor.



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