Semiconductors are at the heart of the electronics industry. And while we hear the term “semiconductor” thrown around a lot, much of the population has no idea what it means. Here are some Q&As to help you understand more about semiconductors and their vital role in today’s high-tech world.

About Semiconductors

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What is a semiconductor?
A solid substance that, as the name suggests, is partially conductive. This means that it lies in between substances that can’t conduct electricity (known as insulators) and those that are fully conductive. An example of an insulator would be rubber or plastic while conductive materials include copper and silver.

What are semiconductors used for?
Anything that is computerized or that relies on radio waves is built with semiconductors. They are vital to microprocessor chips and transistors.

What are the most common semiconductors?
Silicon carries the day when it comes to semiconductor materials. Most microprocessor chips and transistors are made using silicon, hence the name “Silicon Valley.” Germanium and carbon are also semiconductors.

Why are semiconductors so useful?
The electronics industry depends on being able to control electricity. We need to be able to transmit and stop a current whenever we want. While you can do this with conductors and insulators, the process is a little clumsy because it requires two different materials. Semiconductors allow you to start and stop electrical current using just one type of material.

What is a “doped” semiconductor?
This is not a semiconductor on drugs. Rather, it is a semiconductor whose behavior has been changed. With doping, you mix a small quantity of an impure substance into the silicone crystal. That can turn the crystal from non-conductive to conductive.

What are diodes and transistors?
Diodes are the smallest possible semiconductor devices. These two-layered devices contain silicon mixed with various impurities. They allow current to flow in one direction but not the other (similar to a turnstile at a train station). These are often used in devices with batteries. If you insert the batteries backwards, the diode will keep the current from flowing the wrong way and damaging the device.

A transistor is a three-layered device that is configured like a sandwich. The bread on the sandwich may be non-conductive, but the filling may be conductive. A transistor can act like a switch, turning a larger current on and off. A silicon chip can hold thousands or millions of transistor switches. These can be combined to form Boolean gates, which can in turn be combined to form microprocessor chips.