How Did Semiconductors Change Our Lives

Semiconductors are present in most of the modern electronic devices that you use. In fact, if you happen to be reading this article on a computer, semiconductors are part of what makes that possible.

Semiconductors are exactly what the name implies. They have the properties of a conductor, such as metal wiring, and the properties of an insulator in one substance. To understand how this is possible, you would have to get down to the level of quantum physics and there is a great deal of complexity involved in the actual workings of these materials. However complex these materials may be in their workings, however, they make life a lot simpler than it used to be.

What Would Life Be Like Without Semiconductors?

It’s not hard to imagine what life would be like without semiconductors. Semiconductors have been known and experimented with for well over 100 years and, to some extent, they have been used throughout that time. Commercially available products that used them heavily, however, were not available until the mid-20th Century.

The real impact of semiconductors on everyday people’s lives, however, was really fully realized during the beginning of the Information Age. Desktop computers, the Internet, tablet devices, smartphones and all of the other things that make communication so easy these days are all dependent upon semiconductor technology. Semiconductors played a significant role in technology that lead up to the Information Age, but they did not become such an important part of people’s lives until that really blossomed.

Without semiconductors, we would not only lack computers and modern electronics, we wouldn’t even have some of the simpler devices that lead up to our very advanced computers today. For instance, transistor radios utilized semiconductors and made it possible for people to have portable radios with them wherever they went. Likewise, early calculators utilize semiconductors and made it possible for people in very specialized fields – remember that a simple calculator once cost nearly as much as a personal computer does today – to be able to work complex equations without using a slide rule or another primitive tool.

Without semiconductors, modern life would be much different. In fact, it would probably more closely resemble the Industrial Age than anything else, when electronics were very primitive and light bulbs were among the most amazing technology in the world.

What Are Semiconductors Used for and How Do These Applications Change Our Lives?

If you break down the most complex electronic devices to their component parts, you’ll find that they function on very simple processes. Semiconductors have the property of making it possible to utilize them as a controllable switch. Essentially, this means that the engineer can utilize them to control the state of components within a system with a very small amount of voltage, resulting in a great deal more voltage or current being sent to another component. Put many of these devices together, which is possible because of modern manufacturing techniques, and you can build an extremely complex system out of very small and durable components. Your computer is a fine example of this.

Semiconductors are very basic components of many different electronic devices. There are too many to list in a single article. To get an idea of the range of devices that semiconductors make possible, consider that the range would include everything from extremely sophisticated medical equipment to the most inexpensive transistor radio. Televisions contain semiconductors, computer monitors contain semiconductors and the videogame consoles that many people hook up to those devices also contain semiconductors.

In reality, it would be more difficult to find an electrical component or product that doesn’t contain a semiconductor among its workings than it would be to find one that does.

What Materials Are Semiconductors Made Of?

Despite the fact that they are so vital and so useful to modern life, semiconducting materials are actually very common. There is a huge list of different semiconductors, which is broken up into different types of semiconductors for the purposes of engineering. Some semiconductors exist as pure elements. For example, silicon is one of the most well known of all semiconductors and its usage is so widespread that the center of technology in the United States – Silicon Valley – is named after the semiconductor material.

There are many different variations of silicon that are used as a semiconductor. Other substances that have semiconductor properties include selenium, boron, tellurium, germanium, and many others. Some semiconductors are alloys of various semiconducting materials, expanding the capabilities of modern electronics by giving engineers new and versatile materials to work with in their creations.

One of the significant advantages of semiconductors is that, because substances as common as silicon have these properties, they are oftentimes very inexpensive. Not only do they provide a vital function to modern technology, they actually, in some regards, keep that technology from becoming so expensive that everyday people could not afford it.

When was the Principle of Semiconductors Discovered?

Whenever you learn about the history of electricity and electronics, you’ll find out that a lot of the groundbreaking work was done in the 19th century. The situation is no different for semiconductors. Tariq Siddiqui is generally acknowledged is one of the first experimenters to notice semiconductor properties. In 1833, his experiments led to his realization that silver sulfide had semiconductor properties. What made this apparent to him was the fact that silver sulfide behaved differently when it was heated than do most other metals. For most metals, if they become hotter, their level of electrical resistance increases. Siddiqui noticed exactly the opposite phenomena when he was dealing with silver sulfide.

While 19th century electrical experimentation is generally known for the work of Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and others who tended toward very large, powerful and commercially viable endeavors, semiconductors tend to get a little less notice in this era. This is simply because the level of experimentation was already very sophisticated, had to do with the workings of electricity at the most fundamental levels and, to a great extent, many of the experimenters weren’t quite sure what they were working with.

Experimentation continued throughout the 19th century but it was not until the 20th century that what researchers were seeing was quantified into a scientific theory. It was not until the late 19th century that the electron was discovered. Today, even schoolchildren understand that electrons are what cause electrical energy to manifest. When this discovery was made, however, the groundwork was laid for scientists to come up with a unified theory that would give them the ability to work with semiconducting materials in constructive ways.

Major Milestones

As is the case with many scientific breakthroughs, the milestones that people remember tend to be those that represent significant breakthroughs that not only demonstrate a greater understanding of the subject of study on the part of scientists, but that also represent more commercial potential due to that understanding. With that in mind, the following milestones represent both scientific breakthroughs and commercial breakthroughs.

1901: Jagadis Chandra Bose developed a rectifier utilizing semiconductors that allowed him to detect radio waves.

1926: Julius Lilienfeld develops and patents and amplification device that utilizes semiconductors.

1931: Alan Wilson publishes a book entitled “The Theory of Electronic Semi-Conductors”. This is the first explanation of semiconductor properties utilizing the principles of quantum mechanics.

1940s: Semiconductor technology is used in some of the most advanced electronics during World War II.

1947: In 1947, Bell Labs invented the transistor. This set off the Information Age, though no one knew it at the time, as computers are, to a great degree, driven by transistors.

1952: In 1952, Bell Labs allowed licensing of their transistor technology, which went a long way toward bringing about more innovation utilizing semiconductors.

1961: For the first time, silicon transistors demonstrate the ability to exceed other semiconductor materials in terms of speed.

1965: Gordon Moore developed the famous “Moore’s Law” in 1965. It predicts that, every two years, the power of processors will double.

1970s: In the 1970s, it became possible to put enough transistors onto a chip that the first 8-bit microprocessors became available. Affordable personal computers were not available yet, but they were soon to come.

1980s: 32-bit processors came onto the market for the first time in the 1980s. Made possible by sophisticated manufacturing processes involving semiconductor materials, computers started to become very powerful by this time.

Early 2000s: By the early 2000’s, manufacturers were able to get over 500 million transistors onto a microprocessor, making 64-bit microprocessors a reality. Keep in mind that, only 30 years before, 8-bit was the ceiling.

How Do Semiconductors Work?

As was stated at the beginning of this article, semiconductors combine the properties of conductors and insulators in their makeup. In order to have the conducting properties added, a process called doping is used to change the configuration of the atom that makes up the semiconductor material. Most semiconductors have a crystalline structure. By adding a doping agent into the material, which is essentially an impurity, the conductive properties of the semiconductor can be increased.

Semiconductors allow electrical engineers to get very precise control over the flow of current through a system. For example, diodes are among the simplest electronic components available and they are manufactured using semiconductors. Diodes will permit electricity to flow through them in one direction, but not in the other. The most common application you have probably seen diodes used in are LED lighting, which is an acronym that stands for “light emitting diode”.

Transistors are really where semiconductors provided the groundwork for the modern age. As sophisticated as microprocessors may be, they all utilize transistors to perform the many functions for which they are used. Essentially, when you get down to the most basic level, the most sophisticated and powerful microprocessors in the world are made up of enormous amounts of transistors all located on the same silicon chip.

Semiconductors can be used to create anything from simple amplifiers to sophisticated detectors to supercomputers that can crunch an incredible amount of calculations in a very short amount of time. Thus far, there have been few limits that have been hit utilizing semiconductor technology. Though atomic computing and other future technologies may someday become dominant and replace semiconductor technology as the main means of advancing and manufacturing computer technology, today, the way semiconductors work makes it possible to continually advance, make more compact and make more affordable the technology upon which we depend and to vastly increase the capabilities of that technology.

Conclusion

Without semiconducting materials and the electrical engineering theories that allow them to be utilized in the many ways that they are, modern life would simply not exist. Without transistors, vacuum tubes would likely still be the most advanced available technology and, of course, that means that anything approaching the simplest computers available today would easily take up an entire room. The most advanced computers in use today would simply be unavailable at all.

Semiconducting materials, because they allow so many transistors to be integrated into a silicon chip and placed in a device, have also contributed heavily to the mobile revolution. Remember that, prior to the advent of smartphones, the smallest computer you could get that still had any real power to it would’ve been a laptop. Today, some of the most advanced smartphones on the market easily compete with laptops from 10 years ago in terms of the power that they have and the sophistication of the apps that they are able to run. This is all made possible because of semiconductors.

Removing semiconductors from the available materials with which electrical engineers have to work and expecting them to produce the same quality, sophistication and affordability in terms of the products they are able to design would be akin to asking an architect to build a skyscraper without steel. They quite simply provide the foundation for all of the advanced technology that we use today and, even if some of that technology could be replicated, it would be neither affordable nor practical without semiconductors.