The Meaning Of Bipolar Transistor

Friday, March 16th, 2018 - Active Components

A bipolar transistor amplifies fluctuations in current or can be used to switch current on and off. In its amplifying mode, it replaced the vacuum tubes that were formerly used in the amplification of audio signals and many other applications. In its switching mode it resembles a relay, although in its “off” state the transistor still allows a very small amount of current flow, known as leakage.

A bipolar transistor is described as a discrete semiconductor device when it is individually packaged, with three leads or contacts. A package containing multiple transistors is an integrated circuit. A Darlington pair actually contains two transistors, but is included here as a discrete component because it is packaged similarly and functions like a single transistor.

How Bipolar Transistor Work

Although the earliest transistors were fabricated from germanium, silicon has become the most commonly used material. Silicon behaves like an insulator, in its pure state at room temperature, but can be “doped” (carefully contaminated) with impurities that introduce a surplus of electrons unbonded from individual atoms. The result is an N-type semiconductor that can be induced to allow the movement of electrons through it, if it is biased with an external voltage. Forward bias means the application of a positive voltage, while reverse bias means reversing that voltage.

Other dopants can create a deficit of electrons, which can be thought of as a surplus of “holes” that can be filled by electrons. The result is a P-type semiconductor.

A bipolar NPN transistor consists of a thin central P-type layer sandwiched between two thicker N-type layers. The three layers are referred to as collector, base, and emitter, with a wire or contact attached to each of them. When a negative charge is applied to the emitter, electrons are forced by mutual repulsion toward the central base layer. If a forward bias (positive potential) is applied to the base, electrons will tend to be attracted out through the base. However, because the base layer is so thin, the electrons are now close to the collector. If the base voltage increases, the additional energy encourages the electrons to jump into the collector, from which they will make their way to the positive current source, which can be thought of as having an even greater deficit of electrons.

Thus, the emitter of an NPN bipolar transistor emits electrons into the transistor, while the collector collects them from the base and moves them out of the transistor. It is important to remember that since electrons carry a negative charge, the flow of electrons moves from negative to positive. The concept of positive-tonegative current is a fiction that exists only for historical reasons. Nevertheless, the arrow in a transistor schematic symbol points in the direction of conventional (positive-to-negative) current.

In a PNP transistor, a thin N-type layer is sandwiched between two thicker P-type layers, the base is negatively biased relative to the emitter, and the function of an NPN transistor is reversed, as the terms “emitter” and “collector” now refer to the movement of electron-holes rather than electrons. The collector is negative relative to the base, and the resulting positive-to-negative current flow moves from emitter to base to collector. The arrow in the schematic symbol for a PNP transistor still indicates the direction of positive current flow.

Bipolar Transistor Symbols

Symbols for NPN and PNP transistors are shown in the following figure. The most common symbol for an NPN transistor is shown at top-left, with letters C, B, and E identifying collector, base, and emitter. In some schematics the circle in the symbols is omitted, as at top-right.

Symbols for an NPN transistor (top) and a PNP transistor (center and bottom)Symbols for an NPN transistor (top) and a PNP transistor (center and bottom). Depending on the schematic in which the symbol appears, it may be rotated or inverted. The circle may be omitted, but the function of the component remains the same.

A PNP transistor is shown in the center. This is the most common orientation of the symbol, since its collector must be at a lower potential than its emitter, and ground (negative) is usually at the bottom of a schematic. At bottom, the PNP symbol is inverted, allowing the positions of emitter and collector to remain the same as in the symbol for the NPN transistor at the top. Other orientations of transistor symbols are often found, merely to facilitate simpler schematics with fewer conductor crossovers. The direction of the arrow in the symbol (pointing out or pointing in) always differentiates NPN from PNP transistors, respectively, and indicates current flowing from positive to negative.

NPN transistors are much more commonly used than PNP transistors. The PNP type was more difficult and expensive to manufacture initially, and circuit design evolved around the NPN type. In addition, NPN transistors enable faster switching, because electrons have greater mobility than electron-holes.

To remember the functions of the collector and the emitter in an NPN transistor, you may prefer to think in terms of the collector collecting positive current into the transistor, and the emitter emitting positive current out of the transistor. To remember that the emitter is always the terminal with an arrow attached to it (both in NPN and PNP schematic symbols), consider that “emitter” and “arrow” both begin with a vowel, while “base” and “collector” begin with consonants. To remember that an NPN transistor symbol has its arrow pointing outward, you can use the mnemonic “N/ever P/ointing i/N.”

Current flow for NPN and PNP transistors is illustrated in the following figure. At top-left, an NPN transistor passes no current (other than a small amount of leakage) from its collector to its emitter so long as its base is held at, or near, the potential of its emitter, which in this case is tied to negative or ground.

Current flow through NPN and PNP transistorsCurrent flow through NPN and PNP transistors

At bottom-left, the purple positive symbol indicates that the base is now being held at a relatively positive voltage, at least 0.6 volts higher than the emitter (for a silicon-based transistor). This enables electrons to move from the emitter to the collector, in the direction of the blue arrows, while the red arrows indicate the conventional concept of current flowing from positive to negative. The smaller arrows indicate a smaller flow of current. A resistor is included to protect the transistor from excessive current, and can be thought of as the load in these circuits.

At top-right, a PNP transistor passes no current (other than a small amount of leakage) from its emitter to its collector so long as its base is held at, or near, the potential of the emitter, which in this case is tied to the positive power supply. At bottom-right, the purple negative symbol indicates that the base is now being held at a relatively negative voltage, at least 0.6 volts lower than the emitter. This enables electrons and current to flow as shown. Note that current flows into the base in the NPN transistor, but out from the base in the PNP transistor, to enable conductivity. In both diagrams, the resistor that would normally be included to protect the base has been omitted for the sake of simplicity.

An NPN transistor amplifies its base current only so long as the positive potential applied to the collector is greater than the potential applied to the base, and the potential at the base must be greater than the potential at the emitter by at least 0.6 volts. So long as the transistor is biased in this way, and so long as the current values remain within the manufacturer’s specified limits, a small fluctuation in current applied to the base will induce a much larger fluctuation in current between the collector and the emitter. This is why a transistor may be described as a current amplifier.

A voltage divider is often used to control the base potential and ensure that it remains less than the potential on the collector and greater than the potential at the emitter (in an NPN transistor). See the following figure.

Resistors R1 and R2 establish a voltage divider to apply acceptable bias to the base of an NPN transistorResistors R1 and R2 establish a voltage divider to apply acceptable bias to the base of an NPN transistor.

Current Gain Of Bipolar Transistor

The amplification of current by a transistor is known as its current gain or beta value, which can be expressed as the ratio of an increase in collector current divided by the increase in base current that enables it. Greek letter β is customarily used to represent this ratio. The formula looks like this:

β = ΔIc / ΔIb

where Ic is the collector current and Ib is the base current, and the Δ symbol represents a small change in the value of the variable that follows it.

Current gain is also represented by the term hFE, where E is for the common Emitter, F is for Forward current, and lowercase letter h refers to the transistor as a “hybrid” device.

The beta value will always be greater than 1 and is often around 100, although it will vary from one type of transistor to another. It will also be affected by temperature, voltage applied to the transistor, collector current, and manufacturing inaccuracies. When the transistor is used outside of its design parameters, the formula to determine the beta value no longer directly applies.

There are only two connections at which current can enter an NPN transistor and one connection where it can leave. Therefore, if Ie is the current from the emitter, Ic is the current entering the collector, and Ib is the current entering the base:

Ie = Ic + Ib

If the potential applied to the base of an NPN transistor diminishes to the point where it is less than 0.6V above the potential at the emitter, the transistor will not conduct, and is in an “off” state, although a very small amount of leakage from collector to emitter will still occur.

When the current flowing into the base of the transistor rises to the point where the transistor cannot amplify the current any further, it becomes saturated, at which point its internal impedance has fallen to a minimal value. Theoretically this will allow a large flow of current; in practice, the transistor should be protected by resistors from being damaged by high current resulting from saturation.

Any transistor has maximum values for the collector current, base current, and the potential difference between collector and emitter. These values should be provided in a datasheet. Exceeding them is likely to damage the component.

Terminology Of Bipolar Transistor

In its saturated mode, a transistor’s base is saturated with electrons (with no room for more) and the internal impedance between collector and emitter drops as low as it can go.

The cutoff mode of an NPN transistor is the state where a low base voltage eliminates all current flow from collector to emitter other than a small amount of leakage.

The active mode, or linear mode, is the intermediate condition between cutoff and saturated, where the beta value or hFE (ratio of collector current to base current) remains approximately constant. That is, the collector current is almost linearly proportional to the base current. This linear relationship breaks down when the bipolar transistor nears its saturation point.

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