Transistor, semiconductor device for amplifying, controlling, and generating electrical signals. Transistors are the active components of integrated circuits, or “microchips,” which often contain billions of these minuscule devices etched into their shiny surfaces. Deeply embedded in almost everything electronic, transistors have become the nerve cells of the Information Age.

There are typically three electrical leads in a transistor, called the emitter, the collector, and the base—or, in modern switching applications, the source, the drain, and the gate. An electrical signal applied to the base (or gate) influences the semiconductor material’s ability to conduct electrical current, which flows between the emitter (or source) and collector (or drain) in most applications. A voltage source such as a battery drives the current, while the rate of current flow through the transistor at any given moment is governed by an input signal at the gate—much as a faucet valve is used to regulate the flow of water through a garden hose.

The first commercial applications for transistors were for hearing aids and “pocket” radios during the 1950s. With their small size and low power consumption, transistors were desirable substitutes for the vacuum tubes (known as “valves” in Great Britain) then used to amplify weak electrical signals and produce audible sounds. Transistors also began to replace vacuum tubes in the oscillator circuits used to generate radio signals, especially after specialized structures were developed to handle the higher frequencies and power levels involved. Low-frequency, high-power applications, such as power-supply inverters that convert alternating current (AC) into direct current (DC), have also been transistorized. Some power transistors can now handle currents of hundreds of amperes at electric potentials over a thousand volts.

By far the most common application of transistors today is for computer memory chips—including solid-state multimedia storage devices for electronic games, cameras, and MP3 players—and microprocessors, where millions of components are embedded in a single integrated circuit. Here the voltage applied to the gate electrode, generally a few volts or less, determines whether current can flow from the transistor’s source to its drain. In this case the transistor operates as a switch: if a current flows, the circuit involved is on, and if not, it is off. These two distinct states, the only possibilities in such a circuit, correspond respectively to the binary 1s and 0s employed in digital computers. Similar applications of transistors occur in the complex switching circuits used throughout modern telecommunications systems. The potential switching speeds of these transistors now exceed a gigahertz, or more than a billion on-and-off cycles per second.

Development of transistors

The transistor was invented in 1947–48 by three American physicists, John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William B. Shockley, at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company’s Bell Laboratories. The transistor proved to be a viable alternative to the electron tube and, by the late 1950s, supplanted the latter in many applications. Its small size, low heat generation, high reliability, and low power consumption made possible a breakthrough in the miniaturization of complex circuitry. During the 1960s and ’70s, transistors were incorporated into integrated circuits, in which a multitude of components (e.g., diodes, resistors, and capacitors) are formed on a single “chip” of semiconductor material.

 

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