When I called p-n junctions the building blocks of digital electronics, I was referring to their key role in building transistors. A transistor is another circuit element, but it is active, meaning it can add energy to a circuit, instead of passive like resistors, capacitors, or inductors which only store or dissipate charge. The transistor has an input where current enters the device and an output where current leaves, but also has a control electrode which can be used to modify the transistor’s function. Transistors can act as a switch, an amplifier, and can change the gain of a circuit (i.e. how many electrons come out compared to how many went in). So where did the transistor come from, and how do you build one?
The earliest devices which acted as transistors were called ‘triodes’, for their three inputs, and were made using vacuum tubes. A current could be transmitted from one electrode to the other, across the airless vacuum inside the tube. But applying a voltage to the third electrode induces an electric field which diverts the current, meaning that the third electrode can be used as a switch to turn current on and off. Triodes were in wide use for the first half of the twentieth century, and enabled many radio and telephone innovations, and in fact are still used in some specialty applications that require very high voltages. But they are quite fragile and consume a lot of power, which is part of what pushed researchers to find alternate ways to build a transistor.
Recall that the p-n junction acts as a diode, passing current in one direction but not the other. Two p-n junctions back to back, which could be n-p-n or p-n-p, will pass no current in any direction, because one of the junctions will always block the flow of charge. However, applying a voltage to the point where the p-n junctions are connected modifies the electric field, allowing current to pass. This kind of device is called a bipolar junction transistor (or BJT), because the p-n junction diodes respond differently to positive voltage than to negative voltage which means they are sensitive to the polarity of the current. (Remember all those times in Star Trek that they tried reversing the polarity? Maybe they had some diodes in backward!) The input of a bipolar junction transistor is called the collector, the output is called the emitter, and the region where voltage is applied to switch the device on is called the base. These are drawn as C, E, and B in the schematic shown below.
Looking at the geometry of a bipolar junction transistor, you might notice that without the base region, the device is just a block of doped semiconductor which would be able to conduct current. What if there were a way to insert or remove a differently doped region to create junctions as needed? This can be done with a slightly different geometry, as shown below with the input now marked S for source, the output marked D for drain, and the control electrode marked G for gate. Applying a voltage to the gate electrode widens the depletion region at the p-n interface, which pinches off current by reducing the cross-section of p-type semiconductor available for conduction. This is effectively a p-n-p junction where the interfaces can be moved by adjusting the depletion region. Since it’s the electric field due to the gate that makes the channel wider or narrower, this device is called a junction field-effect transistor, or JFET.
Both types of junction transistor were in widespread use in electronics from about 1945-1975. But another kind of transistor has since leapt to prominence. Inverting the logic that lead us to the junction field effect transistor, we can imagine a device geometry where an electric field applied by a gate actually creates the conducting region in a semiconductor, as in the schematic below. This device is called a metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor (or MOSFET), because the metal gate electrode is separated from the semiconductor channel by a thin oxide layer. Using the oxide as an insulator is pretty clever, because interfaces between silicon and its native oxide have very few places for electrons to get stuck, compared to the interfaces between silicon and other insulating materials. This means that the whole device, with oxide, p-type silicon, and n-type silicon, can be made in a silicon fabrication facility, many of which had already been built in the first few decades of the electronics era.
These two advantages over junction transistors gave MOSFETs a definite edge, but one final development has cemented their dominance. The combination of an n-channel MOSFET and a p-channel MOSFET together enable the creation of an extremely useful set of basic circuits. Devices built using pairs of one n-channel and one p-channel MOSFET working together are called CMOS, as shorthand for complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor, and have both lower power consumption and increased noise tolerance when compared to junction transistors. You might be asking, what are these super important circuits that CMOS is the best way of building? They are the circuits for digital logic, which we will devote a post to shortly!