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How a PN Junction is formed?

Before explaining the formation of a PN junction, I would like to remind you about the real basic stuff :-
Classification into Metals,Semiconductors and Insulators. The elements and other things around
us (like copper,silver, gold, rubber, glass, water, oil etc) are classified into Conductors, Semiconductors
and Insulators based on their electrical conductivity. Conductors have high electrical conductivity,
where as insulators has the least electrical conductivity. Semiconductors are materials that have
electrical conductivity in between conductors and insulators. The most common
semiconductors areGermanium and Silicon. In its naturally occurring form, they are called intrinsic
semiconductors. But an intrinsic semiconductor (a semiconductor in its natural form) is not suitable for
making any electronic device.One primary reason for this is very low electrical conductivity of an intrinsic
semiconductor at room temperature. Researchers had found a way to manipulate the pure semiconductor
properties and thereby improve its electrical conductivity several times. This is achieved by a process
named doping (by adding a small amount of impurity to Silicon and Germanium). The newly formed
semiconductor (known as doped semiconductor) is called an Extrinsic semiconductor. An extrinsic
semiconductor can be formed in 2 ways and hence there are 2 types of extrinsic semiconductor named 1)
p-type semiconductor and 2) n-type semiconductor. A p-type semiconductor is formed by doping
Germanium (Ge) or Silicon (Si) with atrivalent (number of valence electrons=3) element like
Indium, Boron or Aluminium. An n-type semiconductor is formed by doping Ge or Si with a pentavalent
(number of valence electrons=5)element like Arsenic or Antimony. You may now recall that Ge and
Si are tetravalent ( number of valence electrons=4) elements. This means an n-type semiconductor
will have an excess of electrons or negative charge carriers(surplus of electrons that can be donated to
other elements) where as a p-type semiconductor will have a surplus of holes or positive charge carriers
(you must understand that in reality a hole or a positive charge is representation of absence of an
electron ). So a p-type semiconductor can accept electrons from a donor (an n-type semiconductor).
Now you might have got an idea about why researchers have arrived at making two types of extrinsic
semiconductors p-type (which can accept electrons) and n-type (which can donate electrons). Lets see
what all interesting phenomena happen when we form a junction using a p-type and n-type
semiconductor.
Industrially there are several different ways to make a pn junction. For the ease of understanding, I will
explain it in a simple sentence. We usually make it using a single wafer of Si or Ge. This means, we first
convert a silicon (pure, intrinsic) wafer to a p-type semiconductor by doping it with a trivalent impurity
(Boron or Indium) on one side. Then we dope this p-type semiconductor with a pentavalent impurity
(Phosphorous or Arsenic or Antimony ) to form an n-type region on the same wafer. Thus we have made a
p-type and n-type semiconductor on the same wafer, resulting in formation of a junction (between p-type
and n-type semiconductors) on the same silicon wafer.
What all phenomena occurs during formation of a PN junction?
Three important phenomena occurs during formation of pn junction; as explained below.
Note:- While reading take a look at the picture given below frequently. It will help you to understand
concepts quickly and better.
1) Diffusion 2) Formation of space charge 3) Drift
How diffusion occurs ?
In an n-type semiconductor, the majority carriers are negative charge carriers or electrons. In a p-type
semiconductor, majority carriers are holes or positive charges. When a junction is formed in a silicon
wafer by doping, a concentration gradient occurs between p-type and n-type materials. This results in
electrons moving from n side to p side and holes moving from p side to n side through the junction (call it
as initial movement). When an electron leaves the n-side region, it leaves behind an ionised donor (a
positive charge ) at the n-side. Similarly when a hole is diffused to n-side, it leaves behind an ionised
acceptor (a negative charge) at the p-side. This movement of electrons from n-side to p-side (n>p) and
the movement of holes from p-side to n-side is called (p>n) diffusion and it results in a current
named as diffusion current.
How space charge formation occurs ?
We have seen that an electron moving from n to p (n>p) leaves behind a positive charge at the n-side of
the junction. Similarly a hole moving from p-side to n-side (p>n) leaves behind a negative charge at the
p-side of the junction. When more and more electrons leaves the n-region & more and more holes leaves
the p-region, a region of positive and negative charges is formed at the junction. Positive charges get
accumulated near the n-side junction and negative charges get accumulated near the p-side junction. This
region is known as depletion region. It has been named so because the region is formed by the initial
movement of electrons and holes, where they depleted their original positions leaving behind +ve
and -ve charges at the junction.
How drift occurs?
We have seen that there is a layer of -ve charges accumulated at the p-side of junction and a layer of +ve
charges accumulated at the n-side of the junction. This results in the formation of an electric
fielddirected from positive charge to negative charge. This electric field causes electrons to move from p
side to n side (p>n) and the holes to move from n side to p side (n>p). This motion of charge carriers
due to electric field is known as drift The current resulting from the flow of electrons and holes due to
this electric field (generated by depletion region) is known as drift current. If you observe carefully,
you can easily see thatdrift current is opposite in direction to the diffusion current.
Image Source
The formation of PN Junction
As we have understood the concepts of diffusion, depletion region and drift, lets find out how the
formation of PN junction gets completed. Can you guess which one out of the 3 processes (diffusion, drift
and depletion region) occur first? Its obviously diffusion. It is because of the diffusion of charge
carriers across the junction, there forms a depletion region at the junction. And the depletion region
results in formation of an electric field and this electric field results in drift. So initially diffusion
current will be the highest and drift current will be very small. Gradually as the depletion region
formation continues, drift current builds up and diffusion current falls down. There comes a particular
point of time, when diffusion current is exactly equal and opposite to drift current and the junction comes
to a state of equilibrium. At this state, there is no net current and hence the formation of pn
junction is complete.
How the equilibrium at PN junction is maintained?
We have come upto the point of formation of a complete PN junction and we learned how it reached
equilibrium. How do you think the equilibrium is maintained? Well, lets do a quick rewind again.
We have seen that electrons have moved from n-side to p-side (n>p) during diffusion. So the n-region
has lost its electrons, where as p-side has gained electrons. If we compare this, we can see that, n-region is
positively charged (due to loss of electrons) compared to p-region (which is negatively charged due to gain
of electrons). This results in a potential difference across the n-region and p-region at the junction.
At the state of equilibrium, this potential difference reaches a particular state that it prevents any
further flow of electrons from n-side to p-side. Talking in other way, we need to overcome this potential
difference by using an external energy source (say a battery) to move any one more electron from n-side to
p-side. If we there is no influence of external energy, the formed pn junction (kept alone) wont be able to
overcome this potential difference by itself and hence it remains at the state of equilibrium with zero net
current. This potential difference is called barrier potential. It is called so, because it raises a
barrier to the further movement of electrons from n-side to p-side.