Semiconductors are crystalline or amorphous solids with distinct electrical characteristics. They are of high resistance – higher than typical resistance materials, but still of much lower resistance than insulators. Their resistance decreases as their temperature increases, which is behavior opposite to that of a metal. Finally, their conducting properties may be altered in useful ways by the deliberate, controlled introduction of impurities (“doping”) into the crystal structure, which lowers its resistance but also permits the creation of semiconductor junctions between differently-doped regions of the extrinsic semiconductor crystal. The behavior of charge carriers which include electrons, ions and electron holes at these junctions is the basis of diodes, transistors and all modern electronics.
Semiconductor devices can display a range of useful properties such as passing current more easily in one direction than the other, showing variable resistance, and sensitivity to light or heat. Because the electrical properties of a semiconductor material can be modified by doping, or by the application of electrical fields or light, devices made from semiconductors can be used for amplification, switching, and energy conversion.
The modern understanding of the properties of a semiconductor relies on quantum physics to explain the movement of charge carriers in a crystal lattice. Doping greatly increases the number of charge carriers within the crystal. When a doped semiconductor contains mostly free holes it is called “p-type”, and when it contains mostly free electrons it is known as “n-type”. The semiconductor materials used in electronic devices are doped under precise conditions to control the concentration and regions of p- and n-type dopants. A single semiconductor crystal can have many p- and n-type regions; the p–n junctions between these regions are responsible for the useful electronic behavior.
Although some pure elements and many compounds display semiconductor properties, silicon, germanium, and compounds of gallium are the most widely used in electronic devices. Elements near the so-called “metalloid staircase”, where the metalloids are located on the periodic table, are usually used as semiconductors.
Some of the properties of semiconductor materials were observed throughout the mid 19th and first decades of the 20th century. The first practical application of semiconductors in electronics was the 1904 development of the Cat’s-whisker detector, a primitive semiconductor diode widely used in early radio receivers. Developments in quantum physics in turn allowed the development of the transistor in 1947 and the integrated circuit in 1958.
The global semiconductors market has been volatile over many years. Setting up a chip fabrication industry requires the investment of billions of dollars. The cyclic fluctuations in demand and supply have caused significant fluctuations in price and margin.