Bipolar junction transistor

Bipolar transistor integrated circuits were the main active devices of a generation of mainframe and mini computers, but most computer systems now use integrated circuits relying on field-effect transistors. Bipolar transistors are still used for amplification of signals, switching, and in digital circuits. Specialized types are used for high voltage switches, for radio-frequency amplifiers, or for switching high currents.

NPN BJT with forward-biased B–E junction and reverse-biased B–C junction

Bipolar transistors, and particularly power transistors, have long base-storage times when they are driven into saturation; the base storage limits turn-off time in switching applications. A Baker clamp can prevent the transistor from heavily saturating, which reduces the amount of charge stored in the base and thus improves switching time.

Beta is a convenient figure of merit to describe the performance of a bipolar transistor, but is not a fundamental physical property of the device. Bipolar transistors can be considered voltage-controlled devices (fundamentally the collector current is controlled by the base–emitter voltage; the base current could be considered a defect and is controlled by the characteristics of the base–emitter junction and recombination in the base). In many designs beta is assumed high enough so that base current has a negligible effect on the circuit. In some circuits (generally switching circuits), sufficient base current is supplied so that even the lowest beta value a particular device may have will still allow the required collector current to flow.

The bipolar junction transistor, unlike other transistors, is usually not a symmetrical device. This means that interchanging the collector and the emitter makes the transistor leave the forward active mode and start to operate in reverse mode. Because the transistor's internal structure is usually optimized for forward-mode operation, interchanging the collector and the emitter makes the values of α and β in reverse operation much smaller than those in forward operation; often the α of the reverse mode is lower than 0.5. The lack of symmetry is primarily due to the doping ratios of the emitter and the collector. The emitter is heavily doped, while the collector is lightly doped, allowing a large reverse bias voltage to be applied before the collector–base junction breaks down. The collector–base junction is reverse biased in normal operation. The reason the emitter is heavily doped is to increase the emitter injection efficiency: the ratio of carriers injected by the emitter to those injected by the base. For high current gain, most of the carriers injected into the emitter–base junction must come from the emitter.

Die of a 2N2222 NPN transistor. Bond wires connect to the base and emitter

The low-performance "lateral" bipolar transistors sometimes used in CMOS processes are sometimes designed symmetrically, that is, with no difference between forward and backward operation.

Bipolar transistors have four distinct regions of operation, defined by BJT junction biases.

With both junctions forward biased, a BJT is in saturation mode and facilitates high current conduction from the emitter to the collector (or the other direction in the case of NPN, with negatively charged carriers flowing from emitter to collector). This mode corresponds to a logical "on", or a closed switch.
In cut-off, biasing conditions opposite of saturation (both junctions reverse biased) are present. There is very little current, which corresponds to a logical "off", or an open switch.
Input and output characteristics for a common-base silicon transistor amplifier.

The modes of operation can be described in terms of the applied voltages (this description applies to NPN transistors; polarities are reversed for PNP transistors):

Base lower than emitter, but collector is higher than base. It means the transistor is not letting conventional current go through from collector to emitter.
Base lower than emitter, collector lower than base: reverse conventional current goes through transistor.

Although these regions are well defined for sufficiently large applied voltage, they overlap somewhat for small (less than a few hundred millivolts) biases. For example, in the typical grounded-emitter configuration of an NPN BJT used as a pulldown switch in digital logic, the "off" state never involves a reverse-biased junction because the base voltage never goes below ground; nevertheless the forward bias is close enough to zero that essentially no current flows, so this end of the forward active region can be regarded as the cutoff region.

BJTs can be thought of as two diodes (P–N junctions) sharing a common region that minority carriers can move through. A PNP BJT will function like two diodes that share an N-type cathode region, and the NPN like two diodes sharing a P-type anode region. Connecting two diodes with wires will not make a BJT, since minority carriers will not be able to get from one P–N junction to the other through the wire.

Both types of BJT function by letting a small current input to the base control an amplified output from the collector. The result is that the BJT makes a good switch that is controlled by its base input. The BJT also makes a good amplifier, since it can multiply a weak input signal to about 100 times its original strength. Networks of BJTs are used to make powerful amplifiers with many different applications.

For an illustration of forward and reverse bias, see semiconductor diodes.

The DC emitter and collector currents in active mode are well modeled by an approximation to the Ebers–Moll model:

Top: NPN base width for low collector–base reverse bias; Bottom: narrower NPN base width for large collector–base reverse bias. Hashed regions are depleted regions.

Both factors increase the collector or "output" current of the transistor in response to an increase in the collector–base voltage.

When the base–collector voltage reaches a certain (device-specific) value, the base–collector depletion region boundary meets the base–emitter depletion region boundary. When in this state the transistor effectively has no base. The device thus loses all gain when in this state.

So hFE (or hFE) refers to the (total; DC) collector current divided by the base current, and is dimensionless. It is a parameter that varies somewhat with collector current, but is often approximated as a constant; it is normally specified at a typical collector current and voltage, or graphed as a function of collector current.

Bipolar transistors can be combined with MOSFETs in an integrated circuit by using a BiCMOS process of wafer fabrication to create circuits that take advantage of the application strengths of both types of transistor.

Because base–emitter voltage varies as the logarithm of the base–emitter and collector–emitter currents, a BJT can also be used to compute logarithms and anti-logarithms. A diode can also perform these nonlinear functions but the transistor provides more circuit flexibility.

Transistors may be deliberately made with a lower collector to emitter breakdown voltage than the collector to base breakdown voltage. If the emitter–base junction is reverse biased the collector emitter voltage may be maintained at a voltage just below breakdown. As soon as the base voltage is allowed to rise, and current flows avalanche occurs and impact ionization in the collector base depletion region rapidly floods the base with carriers and turns the transistor fully on. So long as the pulses are short enough and infrequent enough that the device is not damaged, this effect can be used to create very sharp falling edges.