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The PN Junction

We've seen that it is possible to turn a crystal of pure silicon into a moderately good electrical conductor by adding an impurity such as arsenic or phosphorus (for an N-type semiconductor) or aluminum or gallium (for a P-type semiconductor). By itself, however, a single type of semiconductor material isn't very useful. Useful applications start to happen only when a single semiconductor crystal contains both P-type and N-type regions. Here we will examine the properties of a single silicon crystal which is half N-type and half P-type.

The PN Junction.

Consider the silicon crystal represented to the right. Half is N-type while the other half is P-type. We've shown the two types separated slightly, as if they were two separate crystals. The free electrons in the N-type crystal are represented by small black circles with a "-" sign inside to indicate their polarity. The holes in the P-type crystal are shown as small white circles with a "+" inside.

In the real world, it isn't possible to join two such crystals together usefully. Therefore, a practical PN junction can only be created by inserting different impurities into different parts of a single crystal. So let's see what happens when we join the N- and P-type crystals together, so that the result is one crystal with a sharp boundary between the two types.

Unbiased PN Junction

You might think that, left to itself, it would just sit there. However, this is not the case. Instead, an interesting interaction occurs at the junction. The extra electrons in the N region will seek to lose energy by filling the holes in the P region. This leaves an empty zone, or depletion region as it is called, around the junction as shown to the right. This action also leaves a small electrical imbalance inside the crystal. The N region is missing some electrons so it has a positive charge. Those electrons have migrated to fill holes in the P region, which therefore has a negative charge. This electrical imbalance amounts to about 0.3 volt in a germanium crystal, and about 0.65 to 0.7 volt in a silicon crystal. This will vary somewhat depending on the concentration of the impurities on either side of the junction.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to exploit this electrical imbalance as a power source; it doesn't work that way. However, we can apply an external voltage to the crystal and see what happens in response. Let's take a look at the possibilities.

Reverse Biased PN Junction

Suppose we apply a voltage to the outside ends of our PN crystal. We have two choices. In this case, the positive voltage is applied to the N-type material. In response, we see that the positive voltage applied to the N-type material attracts any free electrons towards the end of the crystal and away from the junction, while the negative voltage applied to the P-type end attracts holes away from the junction on this end. The result is that all available current carriers are attracted away from the junction, and the depletion region grows correspondingly larger. There is no current flow through the crystal because all available current carriers are attracted away from the junction, and cannot cross. (We are here considering an ideal crystal -- in real life, the crystal can't be perfect, and some leakage current does flow.) This is known as reverse bias applied to the semiconductor crystal.

Forward Biased PN Junction

Here the applied voltage polarities have been reversed. Now, the negative volatge applied to the N-type end pushes electrons towards the junction, while the positive voltage at the P-type end pushes holes towards the junction. This has the effect of shrinking the depletion region. As the applied voltage exceeds the internal electrical imbalance, current carriers of both types can cross the junction into the opposite ends of the crystal. Now, electrons in the P-type end are attracted to the positive applied voltage, while holes in the N-type end are attracted to the negative applied voltage. This is the condition of forward bias.

Because of this behavior, an electrical current can flow through the junction in the forward direction, but not in the reverse direction. This is the basic nature of an ordinary semiconductor diode.

It is important to realize that holes exist only within the crystal. A hole reaching the negative terminal of the crystal is filled by an electron from the power source and simply disappears. At the positive terminal, the power supply attracts an electron out of the crystal, leaving a hole behind to move through the crystal toward the junction again.

In some literature, you might see the N-type connection designated the cathode of the diode, while the P-type connection is called the anode. These designations come from the days of vacuum tubes, but are still in use. Electrons always move from cathode to anode inside the diode.

One point that needs to be recognized is that there is a limit to the magnitude of the reverse voltage that can be applied to any PN junction. As the applied reverse voltage increases, the depletion region continues to expand. If either end of the depletion region approaches its electrical contact too closely, the applied voltage has become high enough to generate an electrical arc straight through the crystal. This will destroy the diode.

It is also possible to allow too much current to flow through the diode in the forward direction. The crystal is not a perfect conductor, remember; it does exhibit some resistance. Heavy current flow will generate some heat within that resistance. If the resulting temperature gets too high, the semiconductor crystal will actually melt, again destroying its usefulness.

Always be careful to pay attention to the maximum specifications of a diode, and be sure to keep the operating conditions of the diode well within the indicated limits.

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