The band gap represents the minimum energy difference between the top of the valence band and the bottom of the conduction band, However, the top of the valence band and the bottom of the conduction band are not generally at the same value of the electron momentum. In a direct band gap semiconductor, the top of the valence band and the bottom of the conduction band occur at the same value of momentum, as in the schematic below.
In an indirect band gap semiconductor, the maximum energy of the valence band occurs at a different value of momentum to the minimum in the conduction band energy:
The difference between the two is most important in optical devices. As has been mentioned in the section charge carriers in semiconductors, a photon can provide the energy to produce an electron-hole pair.
Each photon of energy E has momentum p = E / c, where c is the velocity of light. An optical photon has an energy of the order of 10–19 J, and, since c = 3 × 108 ms–1, a typical photon has a very small amount of momentum.
A photon of energy Eg, where Eg is the band gap energy, can produce an electron-hole pair in a direct band gap semiconductor quite easily, because the electron does not need to be given very much momentum. However, an electron must also undergo a significant change in its momentum for a photon of energy Eg to produce an electron-hole pair in an indirect band gap semiconductor. This is possible, but it requires such an electron to interact not only with the photon to gain energy, but also with a lattice vibration called a phonon in order to either gain or lose momentum.
The indirect process proceeds at a much slower rate, as it requires three entities to intersect in order to proceed: an electron, a photon and a phonon. This is analogous to chemical reactions, where, in a particular reaction step, a reaction between two molecules will proceed at a much greater rate than a process which involves three molecules.
The same principle applies to recombination of electrons and holes to produce photons. The recombination process is much more efficient for a direct band gap semiconductor than for an indirect band gap semiconductor, where the process must be mediated by a phonon.
As a result of such considerations, gallium arsenide and other direct band gap semiconductors are used to make optical devices such as LEDs and semiconductor lasers, whereas silicon, which is an indirect band gap semiconductor, is not. The table in the next section lists a number of different semiconducting compounds and their band gaps, and it also specifies whether their band gaps are direct or indirect.
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