Most people have heard of microchips, but how much do you know about the components that make them possible? Here we will be discussing the many applications of semiconductors.
What is a semiconductor material?
A semiconductor is a material that has conductivity properties between a conductor, which has the ability to conduct electricity, and a non-conductor or insulator, which doesn’t allow electrical charges to flow through it.
This means that, under certain conditions, semiconductors have the ability to act either as a conductor or an insulator. Semiconductors can be pure elements such as the most commonly used silicon, or compounds such as gallium arsenide.
The main application of semiconductors is in the creation of semiconductor devices which are essential for a multitude of electronic products. Semiconductor devices conduct electric currents in the solid state, instead of as free electrons across a vacuum, and are the successor to vacuum tubes in almost all applications.
One of the most commonly used semiconductor components is the diode, which acts as a one-way valve in a circuit, only allowing the flow of current in one direction. Conversely, conductors allow current to flow in both directions.
Semiconductors are also used in the design of transistors, which are used both for fast switching and for current amplification.
The MOSFET (metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor) is the most common semiconductor device in the world.
Semiconductors and microchips
The semiconductor silicon serves as the base material for the microchip, also known as an integrated circuit or monolithic integrated circuit, a component used in almost every modern electronic device.
A huge amount of tiny MOSFETs are used in the creation of microchips. They are made up of a set of electronic circuits on a small, flat piece of silicon, with many transistors that can turn a current on or off.
The two main types of microchips are the logic chip and the memory chip. Logic chips process information to help electronic devices complete their tasks. One of the most widely known and commonly used logic chips is the CPU or central processing unit.
Memory chips, on the other hand, store information and come in two types – NAND Flash, and ‘working memory’ chips known as DRAM.
The demand for microchips is so high that there is currently a huge supply issue causing lengthy lead times and availability issues across the electronics industry.
Semiconductors are used in almost every sector of electronics.
Consumer electronics: Mobile phones, laptops, games consoles, microwaves and refrigerators all operate with the use of semiconductor components such as integrated chips, diodes and transistors. The high demand for these devices is part of the reason there are currently such long wait times for many consumer electronic devices.
Embedded systems: Embedded systems are small computers that form part of a larger machine. They can control the device and allow user interaction. Embedded systems that we commonly use include central heating systems, digital watches, GPS systems, fitness trackers, televisions and engine management systems in vehicles.
Thermal conductivity: Some semiconductors have high thermal conductivity, so can be used as a cooling agent in certain thermoelectric applications.
Lighting and LED displays: Some semiconductors, usually those available in liquid or amorphous form as a thin-coated film, can produce light and are used in LEDs and OLEDs.
Solar cells: Silicon is also the most commonly used semiconductor in the production of solar panel cells.
That concludes our brief guide to the applications of semiconductors. As you can see, semiconductors are integral to the modern world and play an important role in the electronic devices we use or come into contact with every day.