Matter & Energy

Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.


Semiconductor, solid or liquid material, able to conduct electricity at room temperature more readily than an insulator, but less easily than a metal. Electrical conductivity, which is the ability to conduct electrical current under the application of a voltage, has one of the widest ranges of values of any physical property of matter. Such metals as copper, silver, and aluminum are excellent conductors, but such insulators as diamond and glass are very poor conductors (see Electrical Conductor; Insulation; Metals). At low temperatures, pure semiconductors behave like insulators. Under higher temperatures or light or with the addition of impurities, however, the conductivity of semiconductors can be increased dramatically, reaching levels that may approach those of metals. The physical properties of semiconductors are studied in solid-state physics.


The common semiconductors include chemical elements and compounds such as silicon, germanium; selenium, gallium arsenide, zinc selenide, and lead telluride. The increase in conductivity with temperature, light, or impurities arises from an increase in the number of conduction electrons, which are the carriers of the electrical current (See Electricity; Electron). In a pure, or intrinsic, semiconductor such as silicon, the valence electrons, or outer electrons, of an atom are paired and shared between atoms to make a covalent bond that holds the crystal together (See Chemical Reaction). These valence electrons are not free to carry electrical current. To produce conduction electrons, temperature or light is used to excite the valence electrons out of their bonds, leaving them free to conduct current. Deficiencies, or “holes,” are left behind that contribute to the flow of electricity. (These holes are said to be carriers of positive electricity.) This is the physical origin of the increase in the electrical conductivity of semiconductors with temperature. The energy required to excite the electron and hole is called the energy gap.

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