In general, semiconductors are materials, inorganic or organic, which have the ability to control their conduction depending on chemical structure, temperature, illumination, and presence of dopants. The name semiconductor comes from the fact that these materials have an electrical conductivity between that of a metal, like copper, gold, etc. and an insulator, such as glass. They have an energy gap less than 4eV (about 1eV). In solid-state physics, this energy gap or band gap is an energy range between valence band and conduction band where electron states are forbidden. In contrast to conductors, electrons in a semiconductor must obtain energy (e.g. from ionizing radiation) to cross the band gap and to reach the conduction band. Properties of semiconductors are determined by the energy gap between valence and conduction bands.
Germanium as Semiconductor
Germanium is a chemical element with atomic number 32 which means there are 32 protons and 32 electrons in the atomic structure. The chemical symbol for Germanium is Ge. Germanium is a lustrous, hard, grayish-white metalloid in the carbon group, chemically similar to its group neighbors tin and silicon. Pure germanium is a semiconductor with an appearance similar to elemental silicon. Germanium is widely used for gamma ray spectroscopy. In gamma spectroscopy, germanium is preferred due to its atomic number being much higher than silicon and which increases the probability of gamma ray interaction. Germanium is more used than silicon for radiation detection because the average energy necessary to create an electron-hole pair is 3.6 eV for silicon and 2.9 eV for germanium, which provides the latter a better resolution in energy. On the other hand, germanium has a small band gap energy (Egap = 0.67 eV), which requires to operate the detector at cryogenic temperatures.
Germanium-based Semiconductor Detectors
Germanium-based semiconductor detectors are most commonly used where a very good energy resolution is required, especially for gamma spectroscopy, as well as x-ray spectroscopy. In gamma spectroscopy, germanium is preferred due to its atomic number being much higher than silicon and which increases the probability of gamma ray interaction. Moreover, germanium has lower average energy necessary to create an electron-hole pair, which is 3.6 eV for silicon and 2.9 eV for germanium. This also provides the latter a better resolution in energy. A large, clean and almost perfect germanium semiconductor is ideal as a counter for radioactivity. However, it is difficult and expensive to make large crystals with sufficient purity. While silicon-based detectors cannot be thicker than a few millimeters, germanium can have a depleted, sensitive thickness of centimeters, and therefore can be used as a total absorption detector for gamma rays up to few MeV.
On the other hand, in order to achieve maximum efficiency the detectors must operate at the very low temperatures of liquid nitrogen (-196°C), because at room temperatures the noise caused by thermal excitation is very high.
Since germanium detectors produce the highest resolution commonly available today, they are used to measure radiation in a variety of applications including personnel and environmental monitoring for radioactive contamination, medical applications, radiometric assay, nuclear security and nuclear plant safety.