Energy can be added to electrons by applying heat. This is the beginning of the conduction process. When enough energy is absorbed by the valence electrons, it is possible for them to break some of their covalent bonds. Once the bonds are broken, the conduction process causes the electrons to move to the conduction band where they are capable of supporting electric current.
When a voltage is applied to a crystal containing these conduction band electrons, the electrons move through the crystal toward the applied voltage. This movement of electrons in a semiconductor (diode) is referred to as electron current flow.
There is still another type of current in a pure semiconductor. This current occurs when a covalent bond is broken and a vacancy is left in the atom by the missing valence electron. This vacancy is commonly referred to as a "hole." The hole is considered to have a positive charge because its atom isdeficient by one electron, which causes the protons to outnumber the electrons. As a result of this hole, a chain reaction begins when a nearby electron breaks its own covalent bond to fill the hole, leaving another hole. Then another electron breaks its bond to fill the previous hole, leaving still another hole.
Each time an electron in this process fills a hole, it enters into a covalent bond. Even though an electron has movedfrom one covalent bond to another, the most important thing to remember is that the hole is also moving. Therefore, since this process of conduction resembles the movement of holes rather than electrons, it is termed hole flow (short for hole current flow or conduction by holes).
Hole flow is very similar to electron flow except that the holes move toward a negative potential and in an opposite direction to that of the electron. Since hole flow results from the breaking of covalent bonds, which are at the valence band level, the electrons associated with this type of conduction contain only valence band energy and must remain in the valence band. However, the electrons associated with electron flow have conduction band energy and can, therefore, move throughout the crystal.
A good analogy of hole flow is the movement of a hole through a tube filled with balls shown in the illustration below.
Analogy of hole flow relating to conduction process in a semiconductor.
When ball number 1 is removed from the tube, a hole is left. This hole is then filled by ball number 2, which leaves still another hole. Ball number 3 then moves into the hole left by ball number 2. This causes still another hole to appear where ball 3 was.
Notice the holes are moving to the right side of the tube. This action continues until all the balls have moved one space to the left in which time the hole moved eight spaces to the right and came to rest at the right-hand end of the tube.
In the theory just described, two current carriers were created by the breaking of covalent bonds: the negative electron and the positive hole. These carriers are referred to as electron-hole pairs.
Since the semiconductor (diode) contains no impurities, the number of holes in the electron-hole pairs is always equal to the number of conduction electrons. Another way of describing this condition where no impurities exist is by saying the semiconductor is INTRINSIC. The term intrinsic is also used todistinguish a pure semiconductor from one containing impurities.
As you progress into learning about the function of semiconductor diodes the conduction process will make more sense.