Category Archives: Semiconductors

Zener’s Electrical Breakdown Model

In my previous post about electric field induced metal-insulator transitions, I mentioned the notion of Zener breakdown. Since the idea is not likely to be familiar to everyone, I thought I’d use this post to explain the concept a little further.

Simply stated, Zener breakdown occurs when a DC electric field applied to an insulator is large enough such that the insulator becomes conducting due to interband tunneling. Usually, when we imagine electrical conduction in a solid, we think of the mobile electrons moving only within one or more partially filled bands. Modelling electrical transport within a single band can already get quite complicated, so it was a major accomplishment that C. Zener was able to come up with a relatively simple and solvable model for interband tunneling.

To make the problem tractable, Zener came up with a hybrid real-space / reciprocal-space model where he could use the formalism of a 1D quantum mechanical barrier:


In Zener’s model, the barrier height is set by the band gap energy, E_{g}, between the valence and conduction bands in the insulator, while the barrier width is set by the length scale relevant to the problem. In this case, we can say that the particle can gain enough kinetic energy to surpass the barrier if e\mathcal{E}d = E_{g}, in which case our barrier width would be:

d = E_{g} / e\mathcal{E},

where \mathcal{E} is the applied electric field and e is the electron charge.

Now, how do we solve this tunneling problem? If we were to use the WKB formalism, like Zener, we get that the transmission probability is:

P_T = e^{-2\gamma}             where           \gamma = \int_0^d{k(x) dx}.

Here, k(x) is the wavenumber. So, really, all that needs to be done is to obtain the correct funtional form for the wavenumber and (hopefully) solve the integral. This turns out not to be too difficult — we just have to make sure that we include both bands in the calculation. This can be done in similar way to the nearly free electron problem.

Quickly, the nearly-free electron problem considers the following E-k relations in the extended zone scheme:


Near the zone boundary, one needs to apply degenerate perturbation theory due to Bragg diffraction of the electrons (or degeneracy of the bands from the next zone, or however you want to think about it). So if one now zooms into the hatched area in the figure above, one gets that a gap opens up by solving the following determinant and obtaining \epsilon(k):

\left( \begin{array}{cc} \lambda_k - \epsilon & E_g/2 \\ E_g/2 & \lambda_{k-G} - \epsilon \end{array} \right),

where \lambda_k is \hbar^2k^2/2m in this problem, and the hatched area becomes gapped like so:


In the Zener model problem, we take a similar approach. Instead of solving for \epsilon(k), we solve for k(\epsilon). To focus on the zone boundary, we first let k \rightarrow k_0 + \kappa and \epsilon \rightarrow \epsilon_0 + \epsilon_1, where k_0 = \pi/a (the zone boundary) and \epsilon_0 = \hbar^2k_0^2/2m, under the assumption that \kappa and \epsilon_1 are small. All this does is shift our reference point to the hatched region in previous figure above.

The trick now is to solve for  k(\epsilon) to see if imaginary solutions are possible. Indeed, they are! I get that:

\kappa^2 = \frac{2m}{\hbar^2} (\frac{\epsilon_1^2 - E_g^2/4}{4\epsilon_0}),

so as long as \epsilon_1^2 - E_g^2/4 < 0, we get imaginary solutions for \kappa.

Although we have a function \kappa(\epsilon_1), we still need to do a little work to obtain \kappa(x), which is required for the WKB exponent. Here, Zener just assumed the simplest thing that he could, that \epsilon_1 is related to the tunneling distance, x, linearly. The image I’ve drawn above (that shows the potential profile) and the fact that work done by the electric field is e\mathcal{E}x demonstrates that this assumption is very reasonable.

Plugging all the numbers in and doing the integral, one gets that:

P_T = \exp-\left(\pi^2 E_g^2/(4 \epsilon_0 e \mathcal{E} a)\right).

If you’re like me in any way, you’ll find the final answer to the problem pretty intuitive, but Zener’s methodology towards obtaining it pretty strange. To me, the solution is quite bizarre in how it moves between momentum space and real space, and I don’t have a good physical picture of how this happens in the problem. In particular, there is seemingly a contradiction between the assumption of the lattice periodicity and the application of the electric field, which tilts the lattice, that pervades the problem. I am apparently not the only one that is uncomfortable with this solution, seeing that it was controversial for a long time.

Nonetheless, it is a great achievement that with a couple simple physical pictures (albeit that, taken at face value, seem inconsistent), Zener was able to qualitatively explain one mechanism of electrical breakdown in insulators (there are a few others such as avalanche breakdown, etc.).

Electron-Hole Droplets

While some condensed matter physicists have moved on from studying semiconductors and consider them “boring”, there are consistently surprises from the semiconductor community that suggest the opposite. Most notably, the integral and fractional quantum Hall effect were not only unexpected, but (especially the FQHE) have changed the way we think about matter. The development of semiconductor quantum wells and superlattices have played a large role furthering the physics of semiconductors and have been central to the efforts in observing Bloch oscillations, the quantum spin Hall effect and exciton condensation in quantum hall bilayers among many other discoveries.

However, there was one development that apparently did not need much of a technological advancement in semiconductor processing — it was simply just overlooked. This was the discovery of electron-hole droplets in the late 60s and early 70s in crystalline germanium and silicon. A lot of work on this topic was done in the Soviet Union on both the theoretical and experiment fronts, but because of this, finding the relevant papers online are quite difficult! An excellent review on the topic was written by L. Keldysh, who also did a lot of theoretical work on electron-hole droplets and was probably the first to recognize them for what they were.

Before continuing, let me just emphasize, that when I say electron-hole droplet, I literally mean something quite akin to water droplets in a fog, for instance. In a semiconductor, the exciton gas condenses into a mist-like substance with electron-hole droplets surrounded by a gas of free excitons. This is possible in a semiconductor because the time it takes for the electron-hole recombination is orders of magnitude longer than the time it takes to undergo the transition to the electron-hole droplet phase. Therefore, the droplet can be treated as if it is in thermal equilibrium, although it is clearly a non-equilibrium state of matter. Recombination takes longer in an indirect gap semiconductor, which is why silicon and germanium were used for these experiments.

A bit of history: The field got started in 1968 when Asnin, Rogachev and Ryvkin in the Soviet Union observed a jump in the photoconductivity in germanium at low temperature when excited above a certain threshold radiation (i.e. when the density of excitons exceeded \sim 10^{16}  \textrm{cm}^{-3}). The interpretation of this observation as an electron-hole droplet was put on firm footing when a broad luminescence peak was observed by Pokrovski and Svistunova below the exciton line (~714 meV) at ~709 meV. The intensity in this peak increased dramatically upon lowering the temperature, with a substantial increase within just a tenth of a degree, an observation suggestive of a phase transition. I reproduce the luminescence spectrum from this paper by T.K. Lo showing the free exciton and the electron-hole droplet peaks, because as mentioned, the Soviet papers are difficult to find online.


From my description so far, the most pressing questions remaining are: (1) why is there an increase in the photoconductivity due to the presence of droplets? and (2) is there better evidence for the droplet than just the luminescence peak? Because free excitons are also known to form biexcitons (i.e. excitonic molecules), the peak may easily interpreted as evidence of biexcitons instead of an electron-hole droplet, and this was a point of much contention in the early days of studying the electron-hole droplet (see the Aside below).

Let me answer the second question first, since the answer is a little simpler. The most conclusive evidence (besides the excellent agreement between theory and experiment) was literally pictures of the droplet! Because the electrons and holes within the droplet recombine, they emit the characteristic radiation shown in the luminescence spectrum above centered at ~709 meV. This is in the infrared region and J.P. Wolfe and collaborators were actually able to take pictures of the droplets in germanium (~ 4 microns in diameter) with an infrared-sensitive camera. Below is a picture of the droplet cloud — notice how the droplet cloud is actually anisotropic, which is due to the crystal symmetry and the fact that phonons can propel the electron-hole liquid!


The first question is a little tougher to answer, but it can be accomplished with a qualitative description. When the excitons condense into the liquid, the density of “excitons” is much higher in this region. In fact, the inter-exciton distance is smaller than the distance between the electron and hole in the exciton gas. Therefore, it is not appropriate to refer to a specific electron as bound to a hole at all in the droplet. The electrons and holes are free to move independently. Naively, one can rationalize this because at such high densities, the exchange interaction becomes strong so that electrons and holes can easily switch partners with other electrons and holes respectively. Hence, the electron-hole liquid is actually a multi-component degenerate plasma, similar to a Fermi liquid, and it even has a Fermi energy which is on the order of 6 meV. Hence, the electron-hole droplet is metallic!

So why do the excitons form droplets at all? This is a question of kinetics and has to do with a delicate balance between evaporation, surface tension, electron-hole recombination and the probability of an exciton in the surrounding gas being absorbed by the droplet. Keldysh’s article, linked above, and the references therein are excellent for the details on this point.

In light of the recent discovery that bismuth (also a compensated electron-hole liquid!) was recently found to be superconducting at ~530 microKelvin, one may ask whether it is possible that electron-hole droplets can also become superconducting at similar or lower temperatures. From my brief searches online it doesn’t seem like this question has been seriously asked in the theoretical literature, and it would be an interesting route towards non-equilibrium superconductivity.

Just a couple years ago, a group also reported the existence of small droplet quanta in GaAs, demonstrating that research on this topic is still alive. To my knowledge, electron-hole drops have thus far not been observed in single-layer transition metal dichalcogenide semiconductors, which may present an interesting route to studying dimensional effects on the electron-hole droplet. However, this may be challenging since most of these materials are direct-gap semiconductors.

Aside: Sadly, it seems like evidence for the electron-hole droplet was actually discovered at Bell Labs by J.R. Haynes in 1966 in this paper before the 1968 Soviet paper, unbeknownst to the author. Haynes attributed his observation to the excitonic molecule (or biexciton), which he, it turns out, didn’t have the statistics to observe. Later experiments confirmed that it indeed was the electron-hole droplet that he had observed. Strangely, Haynes’ paper is still cited in the present time relatively frequently in the context of biexcitons, since he provided quite a nice analysis of his results! Also, it so happened that Haynes died after his paper was submitted and never found out that he had actually discovered the electron-hole droplet.

Fractional quasiparticles and reality

As a condensed matter physicist, one of the central themes that one must become accustomed to is the idea of a quasiparticle. These quasiparticles are not particles as nature made them per se, but only exist inside matter. (Yes, nature made matter too, and therefore quasiparticles as well, but come on — you know what I mean!)

Probably the first formulation of a quasiparticle was in Einstein’s theory of specific heat in a solid at low temperature. He postulated that the sound vibrations in a solid, much like photons from a blackbody, obeyed the Planck distribution, implying some sort of particulate nature to sound. This introduction was quite indirect, and the first really explicit formulation of quasiparticles was presented by Landau in his theory of He4. Here, he proposed that most physical observables could be described in terms of “phonons” and “rotons“, quantized sound vibrations at low and high momenta respectively.

In solid state physics, one of the most common quasiparticles is the hole; in the study of magnetism it is the magnon, in semiconductor physics, the exciton is ubiquitous and there are many other examples as well. So let me ask a seemingly benign question: are these quasiparticles real (i.e. are they real particles)?

In my experience in the condensed matter community, I suspect that most would answer in the affirmative, and if not, at least claim that the particles observed in condensed matter are just as real as any particle observed in particle physics.

Part of the reason I bring this issue up is because of concerns raised soon following the discovery of the fractional quantum Hall effect (FQHE). When the theory of the FQHE was formulated by Laughlin, it was thought that his formulation of quasiparticles of charge e/3 may have been a mere oddity in the mathematical description of the FQHE. Do these particles carrying e/3 current actually exist or is this just a convenient mathematical description?

In two papers that appeared almost concurrently, linked here and here, it was shown using quantum shot noise experiments that these e/3 particles did indeed exist. Briefly, quantum shot noise arises because of the discrete nature of particles and enables one to measure the charge of a current-carrying particle to a pretty good degree of accuracy. In comparing their results to the models of particles carrying charge e versus particles carrying charge e/3, the data shows no contest. Here is a plot below showing this result quite emphatically:


One may then pose the question: is there a true distinction between what really “exists out there” versus a theory that conveniently describes and predicts nature? Is the physicist’s job complete once the equations have been written down (i.e should he/she not care about questions like “are these fractional charges real”)?

These are tough questions to answer, and are largely personal, but I lean towards answering ‘yes’ to the former and ‘no’ to the latter. I would contend that the quantum shot noise experiments outlined above wouldn’t have even been conducted if the questions posed above were not serious considerations. While asking if something is real may not always be answerable, when it is, it usually results in a deepened understanding.

This discussion reminds me of an (8-year old!) YouTube video of David who, following oral surgery to remove a tooth, still feels the affects of anesthesia :

Wannier-Stark Ladder, Wavefunction Localization and Bloch Oscillations

Most people who study solid state physics are told at some point that in a totally pure sample where there is no scattering, one should observe an AC response to a DC electric field, with oscillations at the Bloch frequency (\omega_B). These are the so-called Bloch oscillations, which were predicted by C. Zener in this paper.

However, the actual observation of Bloch oscillations is not as simple as the textbooks would make it seem. There is an excellent Physics Today article by E. Mendez and G. Bastard that outline some of the challenges associated with observing Bloch oscillations (which was written while this paper was being published!). Since the textbook treatments often use semi-classical equations of motion to demonstrate the existence of Bloch oscillations in a periodic potential, they implicitly assume transport of an electron wave-packet. To generate this wave-packet is non-trivial in a solid.

In fact, if one undertakes a full quantum mechanical treatment of electrons in a periodic potential under the influence of an electric field, one arrives at the Wannier-Stark ladder, which shows that an electric field can localize electrons! It is this ladder and the corresponding localization which was key to observing Bloch oscillations in semiconductor superlattices.

Let me use the two-well potential to give you a picture of how this localization might occur. Imagine symmetric potential wells, where the lowest energy eigenstates look like so (where S and A label the symmetric and anti-symmetric states):

Now, imagine that I start to make the wells a little asymmetric. What happens in this case? Well, it turns out that that the electrons start to localize in the following way (for the formerly symmetric and anti-symmetric states):

G. Wannier was able to solve the Schrodinger equation with an applied electric field in a periodic potential in full and showed that the eigenstates of the problem form a Stark ladder. This means that the eigenstates are of identical functional form from quantum well to quantum well (unlike in the double-well shown above) and the energies of the eigenstates are spaced apart by \Delta E=\hbar \omega_B! The potential is shown schematically below. It is also shown that as the potential wells slant more and more (i.e. with larger electric fields), the wavefunctions become more localized (the image is taken from here (pdf!)):


A nice numerical solution from the same document shows the wavefunctions for a periodic potential well profile with a strong electric field, exhibiting a strong wavefunction localization. Notice that the wavefunctions are of identical form from well to well.


What can be seen in this solution is that the stationary states are split by \hbar \omega_B, but much like the quantum harmonic oscillator (where the levels are split by \hbar \omega), nothing is actually oscillating until one has a wavepacket (or a linear superposition of eigenstates). Therefore, the Bloch oscillations cannot be observed in the ground state (which includes the the applied electric field) in a semiconducting superlattice since it is an insulator! One must first generate a wavepacket in the solid.

In the landmark paper that finally announced the existence of Bloch oscillations, Waschke et. al. generated a wavepacket in a GaAs-GaAlAs superlattice using a laser pulse. The pulse was incident on a sample with an applied electric field along the superlattice direction, and they were able to observe radiation emitted from the sample due to the Bloch oscillations. I should mention that superlattices must be used to observe the Wannier-Stark ladder and Bloch oscillations because \omega_B, which scales with the width of the quantum well, needs to be fast enough that the electrons don’t scatter from impurities and phonons. Here is the famous plot from the aforementioned paper showing that the frequency of the emitted radiation from the Bloch oscillations can be tuned using an electric field:


This is a pretty remarkable experiment, one of those which took 60 years from its first proposal to finally be observed.

Excitons in Cuprous Oxide

There is an excellent pair of papers here and here demonstrating the existence of a Rydberg series of excitons in Cu_2O, a material that has long been the poster child for observing excitons. The data in both papers are pretty stunning — in the first one, they see a Rydberg series up to n=25! In the second, they see higher angular momentum (f-like and h-like) excitons apart from the usual p-like excitons.

Excitons can occur in semiconductors and insulators and are the result of the Coulomb interaction between electrons and holes. For those familiar with superconductivity, an exciton, in many ways, bears a qualitative resemblance to Cooper pairs, except here the quasi-particles are of opposite charge. Hence, the binding between the electron and hole arises from the usual attractive Coulomb interaction. However, it helps to think of the exciton (similar to Cooper pairs) as possessing a center of mass wavefunction and a relative wavefunction.

The relative wavefunction is then qualitatively and quantitatively similar to the quantum mechanical solution of the hydrogen atom. The main differences are that (1) the reduced mass of the electron-hole pair is usually much less than the reduced mass of the electron-proton system and also that (2) there exists a background dielectric constant, \epsilon, that further reduces the energy of the Rydberg series in an insulator. In the simple hydrogen-like picture of the exciton, the energy levels (with center of mass momentum taken to be zero) then have the following energies:

E_n =- \frac{\mu}{m\epsilon^2}\frac{R}{n^2}

where \mu is the reduced mass of the electron-hole system, m is the proton mass, and R is the hydrogenic Rydberg.

It turns out that this perfectly spherically symmetric model does not encapsulate completely the exciton in a solid, however, because the potential in a crystal is not perfectly rotation-symmetric. Because of the lattice, the “angular momentum” of the exciton cannot be labeled using an s, p, d, f, etc. kind of scheme and we must resort to some group theory.

For the case of Cu_2O discussed in the papers above, the symmetry of the crystal is cubic — therefore the symmetry is still relatively high. However, because continuous rotational symmetry is broken, the light used to detect the excitons in this experiment are no longer forbidden from exciting f-like and h-like excitons and it is remarkable that they are observable!

Even though the observations in these papers can be accounted for in a quite simple theoretical framework, the experimental results are nonetheless quite elegant and remarkable.

As an interesting aside, the reason that this experiment is possible is because of the extreme purity of the Cu_2O crystals used for these studies. It turns out the cleanest of these samples are naturally-occurring, rather than man-made.