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A photodetector salvaged from a CD-ROM drive. The photodetector contains three photodiodes, visible in the photo (in center). CD-ROM Photodetector.jpg
A photodetector salvaged from a CD-ROM drive. The photodetector contains three photodiodes, visible in the photo (in center).

Photodetectors, also called photosensors, are sensors of light or other electromagnetic radiation. [1] A photo detector has a p–n junction that converts light photons into current. The absorbed photons make electron–hole pairs in the depletion region. Photodiodes and photo transistors are a few examples of photo detectors. Solar cells convert some of the light energy absorbed into electrical energy.

Light electromagnetic radiation in or near visible spectrum

Light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The word usually refers to visible light, which is the visible spectrum that is visible to the human eye and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light is usually defined as having wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometres (nm), or 4.00 × 10−7 to 7.00 × 10−7 m, between the infrared and the ultraviolet. This wavelength means a frequency range of roughly 430–750 terahertz (THz).

Electromagnetic radiation form of energy emitted and absorbed by charged particles, which exhibits wave-like behavior as it travels through space

In physics, electromagnetic radiation refers to the waves of the electromagnetic field, propagating (radiating) through space, carrying electromagnetic radiant energy. It includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, (visible) light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays.

p–n junction semiconductor–semiconductor junction, formed at the boundary between a p-type and n-type semiconductor

A p–n junction is a boundary or interface between two types of semiconductor materials, p-type and n-type, inside a single crystal of semiconductor. The "p" (positive) side contains an excess of holes, while the "n" (negative) side contains an excess of electrons in the outer shells of the electrically neutral atoms there. This allows electrical current to pass through the junction only in one direction. The p-n junction is created by doping, for example by ion implantation, diffusion of dopants, or by epitaxy. If two separate pieces of material were used, this would introduce a grain boundary between the semiconductors that would severely inhibit its utility by scattering the electrons and holes.



A commercial amplified photodetector for use in optics research USB-photodetector.png
A commercial amplified photodetector for use in optics research

Photodetectors may be classified by their mechanism for detection: [2] [ unreliable source? ] [3] [4]

Photoelectric effect physical phenomenon

The photoelectric effect is the emission of electrons or other free carriers when light hits a material. Electrons emitted in this manner can be called photoelectrons. This phenomenon is commonly studied in electronic physics, as well as in fields of chemistry, such as quantum chemistry and electrochemistry.

In physics, a phonon is a collective excitation in a periodic, elastic arrangement of atoms or molecules in condensed matter, specifically in solids and some liquids. Often designated a quasiparticle, it represents an excited state in the quantum mechanical quantization of the modes of vibrations of elastic structures of interacting particles.

Polarization (waves) property of waves that can oscillate with more than one orientation

Polarization is a property applying to transverse waves that specifies the geometrical orientation of the oscillations. In a transverse wave, the direction of the oscillation is perpendicular to the direction of motion of the wave. A simple example of a polarized transverse wave is vibrations traveling along a taut string (see image); for example, in a musical instrument like a guitar string. Depending on how the string is plucked, the vibrations can be in a vertical direction, horizontal direction, or at any angle perpendicular to the string. In contrast, in longitudinal waves, such as sound waves in a liquid or gas, the displacement of the particles in the oscillation is always in the direction of propagation, so these waves do not exhibit polarization. Transverse waves that exhibit polarization include electromagnetic waves such as light and radio waves, gravitational waves, and transverse sound waves in solids.

Photodetectors may be used in different configurations. Single sensors may detect overall light levels. A 1-D array of photodetectors, as in a spectrophotometer or a Line scanner, may be used to measure the distribution of light along a line. A 2-D array of photodetectors may be used as an image sensor to form images from the pattern of light before it.

Image sensor device that converts an optical image into an electronic signal

An image sensor or imager is a sensor that detects and conveys information used to make an image. It does so by converting the variable attenuation of light waves into signals, small bursts of current that convey the information. The waves can be light or other electromagnetic radiation. Image sensors are used in electronic imaging devices of both analog and digital types, which include digital cameras, camera modules, medical imaging equipment, night vision equipment such as thermal imaging devices, radar, sonar, and others. As technology changes, digital imaging tends to replace analog imaging.

A photodetector or array is typically covered by an illumination window, sometimes having an anti-reflective coating.

Anti-reflective coating

An antireflective or anti-reflection (AR) coating is a type of optical coating applied to the surface of lenses and other optical elements to reduce reflection. In typical imaging systems, this improves the efficiency since less light is lost due to reflection. In complex systems such as telescopes and microscopes the reduction in reflections also improves the contrast of the image by elimination of stray light. This is especially important in planetary astronomy. In other applications, the primary benefit is the elimination of the reflection itself, such as a coating on eyeglass lenses that makes the eyes of the wearer more visible to others, or a coating to reduce the glint from a covert viewer's binoculars or telescopic sight.


There are a number of performance metrics, also called figures of merit, by which photodetectors are characterized and compared [2] [3]

A figure of merit is a quantity used to characterize the performance of a device, system or method, relative to its alternatives.


Grouped by mechanism, photodetectors include the following devices:

Photoemission or photoelectric






Graphene/silicon photodetectors

A graphene/n-type silicon heterojunction has been demonstrated to exhibit strong rectifying behavior and high photoresponsivity. Graphene is coupled with silicon quantum dots (Si QDs) on top of bulk Si to form a hybrid photodetector. Si QDs cause an increase of the built-in potential of the graphene/Si Schottky junction while reducing the optical reflection of the photodetector. Both the electrical and optical contributions of Si QDs enable a superior performance of the photodetector. [16]

Frequency range

In 2014 a technique for extending semiconductor-based photodetector's frequency range to longer, lower-energy wavelengths. Adding a light source to the device effectively "primed" the detector so that in the presence of long wavelengths, it fired on wavelengths that otherwise lacked the energy to do so. [17]

See also

Related Research Articles

Photodiode type of photodetector based on a p-n-junction

A photodiode is a semiconductor device that converts light into an electrical current. The current is generated when photons are absorbed in the photodiode. Photodiodes may contain optical filters, built-in lenses, and may have large or small surface areas. Photodiodes usually have a slower response time as their surface area increases. The common, traditional solar cell used to generate electric solar power is a large area photodiode.

Photoconductivity is an optical and electrical phenomenon in which a material becomes more electrically conductive due to the absorption of electromagnetic radiation such as visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared light, or gamma radiation.

Scintillation counter

A scintillation counter is an instrument for detecting and measuring ionizing radiation by using the excitation effect of incident radiation on a scintillating material, and detecting the resultant light pulses.

In electronics, an avalanche diode is a diode that is designed to experience avalanche breakdown at a specified reverse bias voltage. The junction of an avalanche diode is designed to prevent current concentration and resulting hot spots, so that the diode is undamaged by the breakdown. The avalanche breakdown is due to minority carriers accelerated enough to create ionization in the crystal lattice, producing more carriers which in turn create more ionization. Because the avalanche breakdown is uniform across the whole junction, the breakdown voltage is nearly constant with changing current when compared to a non-avalanche diode.

Avalanche photodiode highly sensitive semiconductor electronic device

An avalanche photodiode (APD) is a highly sensitive semiconductor electronic device that exploits the photoelectric effect to convert light to electricity. From a functional standpoint, they can be regarded as the semiconductor analog of photomultipliers. By applying a high reverse bias voltage, APDs show an internal current gain effect due to impact ionization. However, some silicon APDs employ alternative doping and beveling techniques compared to traditional APDs that allow greater voltage to be applied before breakdown is reached and hence a greater operating gain. In general, the higher the reverse voltage, the higher the gain. Among the various expressions for the APD multiplication factor (M), an instructive expression is given by the formula

Quantum dot nano-scale electronic device subject to quantum effects

Quantum dots (QDs) are tiny semiconductor particles a few nanometres in size, having optical and electronic properties that differ from larger LED particles. They are a central theme in nanotechnology. When the quantum dots are illuminated by UV light, some of the electrons receive enough energy to break free from the atoms. This capability allows them to move around the nanoparticle, creating a conductance band in which electrons are free to move through a material and conduct electricity. When these electrons drop back into the outer orbit around the atom, as illustrated in the following figure, they emit light. The color of that light depends on the energy difference between the conductance band and the valence band.

Single-photon avalanche diode solid-state photodetector

A single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD) is a solid-state photodetector in which a photon-generated carrier can trigger a short-duration but relatively large avalanche current. This avalanche is created through a mechanism called impact ionization, whereby carriers are accelerated to high kinetic energies through a large potential gradient (voltage). If the kinetic energy of a carrier is sufficient further carriers are liberated from the atomic lattice. The number of carriers thus increases exponentially from, in some cases, as few as a single carrier. This mechanism was observed and modeled by John Townsend for trace-gas vacuum tubes, becoming known as a Townsend discharge, and later being attributed to solid-state breakdown by K. McAfee. This device is able to detect low-intensity ionizing radiation, including: gamma, X-ray, beta, and alpha-particle radiation along with electromagnetic signals in the UV, Visible and IR. SPADs are also able to distinguish the arrival times of events (photons) with a timing jitter of a few tens of picoseconds.

Quantum efficiency Property of photosensitive devices

The term quantum efficiency (QE) may apply to incident photon to converted electron (IPCE) ratio, of a photosensitive device or it may refer to the TMR effect of a Magnetic Tunnel Junction.

Indium antimonide chemical compound

Indium antimonide (InSb) is a crystalline compound made from the elements indium (In) and antimony (Sb). It is a narrow-gap semiconductor material from the III-V group used in infrared detectors, including thermal imaging cameras, FLIR systems, infrared homing missile guidance systems, and in infrared astronomy. The indium antimonide detectors are sensitive between 1–5 µm wavelengths.

The photovoltaic effect is the creation of voltage and electric current in a material upon exposure to light and is a physical and chemical phenomenon.

Indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) is a ternary alloy of indium arsenide (InAs) and gallium arsenide (GaAs). Indium and gallium are elements of the periodic table while arsenic is a element. Alloys made of these chemical groups are referred to as "III-V" compounds. InGaAs has properties intermediate between those of GaAs and InAs. InGaAs is a room-temperature semiconductor with applications in electronics and photonics.

Cryogenic particle detectors operate at very low temperature, typically only a few degrees above absolute zero. These sensors interact with an energetic elementary particle and deliver a signal that can be related to the type of particle and the nature of the interaction. While many types of particle detectors might be operated with improved performance at cryogenic temperatures, this term generally refers to types that take advantage of special effects or properties occurring only at low temperature.

Active pixel sensor an image sensor consisting of an integrated circuit

An active-pixel sensor (APS) is an image sensor where each picture element ("pixel") has a photodetector and an active amplifier. There are many types of integrated circuit active pixel sensors including the complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) APS used most commonly in cell phone cameras, web cameras, most digital pocket cameras since 2010, in most digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) and Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILCs). Such an image sensor is produced using CMOS technology, and has emerged as an alternative to charge-coupled device (CCD) image sensors.

Shockley–Queisser limit theoretical limit of solar panels using p–n junctions efficiency

In physics, the Shockley–Queisser limit, also known as the detailed balance limit, Shockley Queisser Efficiency Limit or SQ Limit, refers to the maximum theoretical efficiency of a solar cell using a single p-n junction to collect power from the cell. It was first calculated by William Shockley and Hans-Joachim Queisser at Shockley Semiconductor in 1961, giving a maximum efficiency of 30% at 1.1 eV. However, this calculation used a simplified model of the solar spectrum, and more recent calculations give a maximum efficiency of 33.7% at 1.34 eV, but the value is still referred to as the Shockley-Queisser limit in their honor. The limit is one of the most fundamental to solar energy production with photovoltaic cells, and is considered to be one of the most important contributions in the field.

Transition-edge sensor

A transition-edge sensor or TES is a type of cryogenic energy sensor or cryogenic particle detector that exploits the strongly temperature-dependent resistance of the superconducting phase transition.

Quantum well infrared photodetector

A Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector (QWIP) is an infrared photodetector, which uses electronic intersubband transitions in quantum wells to absorb photons. In order to be used for infrared detection, the parameters of the quantum wells in the quantum well infrared photodetector are adjusted so that the energy difference between its first and second quantized states match the incoming infrared photon energy. QWIPs are typically made of gallium arsenide, a material commonly found in smartphones and high-speed communications equipment. Depending on the material and the design of the quantum wells, the energy levels of the QWIP can be tailored to absorb radiation in the infrared region from 3 to 20 µm.

X-ray detector instrument that can detect x-rays

X-ray detectors are devices used to measure the flux, spatial distribution, spectrum, and/or other properties of X-rays.

Quantum dots (QDs) are semiconductor nanoparticles with a size less than 10 nm. They exhibited size-dependent properties especially in the optical absorption and the photoluminescence (PL). Typically, the fluorescence emission peak of the QDs can be tuned by changing their diameters. So far, QDs were consisted of different group elements such as CdTe, CdSe, CdS in the II-VI category, InP or InAs in the III-V category, CuInS2 or AgInS2 in the I–III–VI2 category, and PbSe/PbS in the IV-VI category. These QDs are promising candidates as fluorescent labels in various biological applications such as bioimaging, biosensing and drug delivery.


A solaristor is a compact two terminal self-powered phototransistor. The two-in-one transistor plus solar cell achieves the high-low current modulation by a memresistive effect in the flow of photogenerated carriers. The term was coined by Dr Amador Perez-Tomas working in collaboration with other ICN2 researchers in 2018 when they demonstrated the concept in a ferroelectric-oxide/organic bulk heterojunction solar cell.


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