Understanding the PN Junction

jojo July 21, 2014 31 Comments

Whenever someone decides to learn electronics, the first question that comes to his mind may be – “Where shall I begin?“. I would say, one shall begin at a junction 😉 the “pn junction“. We know semiconductor devices like transistors and diodes are the basic building units of any equipment that involves electronics, say tablet computers to the sophisticated MRI machines! How these basic units like transistors and diodes are formed ? or how are they made ? The answer lies in understanding “PN Junction”. A PN junction is the basic building block of many semiconductor devices like diodes and transistors.

Note:- I have written an interesting article which tells the story behind invention & discovery of PN Junction diode. If you like to read the story, follow here:- Story behind Invention & Discovery of PN Junction

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 are Germanium 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 a trivalent (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 field directed 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 that drift current is opposite in direction to the diffusion current.

pn junction animated diagram of equilibriumdImage 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.

Here you may find a good video with animation, which explains the formation of pn junction. You do watch this video. It will help you to grasp concepts behind pn junction even better.

PN Junction Formation explained using Animations

I have developed a second chapter on the series, which explains the characteristics of PN Junction diode. You can read the article here:- PN Junction Diode and its characteristics

  • July 29, 2018

    Very nice explanation, i heard for the first time. Thank You sir. Keep updating more articles on electronics as it a lot to a lot of students of electronics, electrical s.

  • ırmak
    May 10, 2017

    you re perfect! if you dont do this I guess I could be dead girl. thank youu

  • niffy
    April 24, 2017

    wow… thanks a lot

  • nikita
    November 29, 2016

    Thank you so much for making my life easier!

  • hamidu
    October 20, 2016

    so cool explanation

  • Mweha Francis
    September 12, 2016

    Well explained.!

  • March 9, 2016

    if u have books or pdf like this, send it kindly to annacegsathish@gmail.com please

  • February 13, 2016

    very very very nice explanation, i heard for the first time. Thank You sir. Keep updating more articles on electronics as it a lot to a lot of students of electronics, electricals.

  • lolol
    November 24, 2015

    Thank You. been trying to find the perfect explanation for the pn-junction and this is the best so far 🙂

  • September 30, 2015

    Its nice explaination..

  • Sagar kumar
    February 2, 2015

    nice info… Thankyou

  • abdi abader
    January 29, 2015

    thanks! it is perfect explanation.I loved it it was so easy…
    thank u very much again.
    please send me any books or pdfs anything .
    on this mail ………..

  • shubhada
    January 7, 2015

    it is an excellent explanation…. now I can never forget what is pn junction. I felt it was difficult bcoz I am biology student.but now it is too easy for me.

  • narki
    November 29, 2014

    very vital and simplified information. thank u

  • neha
    November 16, 2014

    nice information

  • Lakshman
    November 10, 2014

    Thank you very much

  • Gowri sankar
    August 24, 2014

    Amazing style of presenting the subject. Never have I ever read any technical stuff of this kind. You are really helping us to become the greatest resource of tecchnology. I need your help. would you please contact me.

  • Waleed
    May 21, 2014

    yahoooooo ,,, at last i understand the concept ,,thxxxx thxxx txx

  • Pooria
    April 10, 2014

    awesome explanation
    I read my class text and J.Millman reference book but couldnt understand the topic and I searched the internet and found this amazing and easy explanation
    thank you so much :-*

  • Shayaan
    August 14, 2013

    Diffusion occurs so that equilibrium could established between n-type and p-type, right?

    And it should be stopped as equilibrium established then there will be no more diffusion current.

    How much I am right?

    • jojo
      August 14, 2013

      You are right 🙂

      • February 13, 2016

        when p type crystal and n type crystal joined, there is a need for equilibrium, right?

        • jojo
          February 14, 2016

          Yes! Please read that part once again and you will understand. Thanks for the good words!

  • Manisha Verma
    March 8, 2013

    awesome xplanation… couldnt grasp better.. 🙂
    thnq so mch 🙂 🙂

  • Jjuuko Haruna
    January 25, 2013

    How would i build a rain sensor using 2N4401 and 2N4403 Transistors and describe it’s mode of operation.

  • Jjuuko Haruna
    January 25, 2013

    Finally i’ve understood PN-junction

  • Bala kannan
    December 9, 2012

    I’m understanding well. Thank you very much……

  • Silva
    December 5, 2012

    Thanks for the easy explanation the text books i have do not explain it in a simple way as you just did.thanks once again

  • gamer
    December 2, 2012

    Very nicely presented. Thanks for enabling me to understand this basic part of electronics so easily.

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