Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Early Power Transistor Evolution, Part 2, Silicon

As discussed in part 1 of this two-part posting on early power transistor evolution, by the early 1960’s germanium power transistors were in widespread use in DC power supplies, audio amplifiers, and other relatively low frequency power applications. Although fairly expensive at that time the manufacturers had processes establish to reliably produce them in volume. To learn more about early germanium power transistors click here to review part 1.

As with most all things manufacturers continued to investigate ways of making things better, faster, and cheaper. Transistors were still relatively new and ready for further innovation. Next to germanium silicon was the other semiconductor in widespread use and with new and different processes developed for transistor manufacturing, silicon quickly displaced germanium as the semiconductor of choice for power transistors. One real workhorse of a power transistor that has truly stood the “Test of Time” is the 2N3055, pictured in Figure 1. Also pictured is his smaller brother, the 2N3054.

Figure 1: 2N3055 and 2N3054 power transistors

Following are some key maximum ratings on the 2N3055 power transistor:
  • VCEO = 60V
  • VCBO = 100V
  • VEBO= 7V
  • IC = 15A
  • PD = 115W
  • hfe= 45 typical
  • fT = 1.5 MHz
  • Thermal resistance = 1.5 oC/W
  • TJ= 200 oC
  • Package: TO-3 (now TO-204AA)
  • Polarity: NPN
  • Material/process: Silicon diffused junction hometaxial-base structure

Diffused junction silicon transistors made major inroads in the early 1960’s ultimately making the germanium power transistors obsolete.  One huge improvement using silicon, especially for power transistors, is the junction temperature, which is generally rated for 200 oC.  This allowed operating at much higher ambient temperatures and at higher power levels when compared to germanium. 

While the alloy junction process being used for the early germanium transistors favored making PNP transistors, the diffused junction process on silicon favored making NPN transistors somewhat more. Silicon diffused junction NPN transistors are much more prevalent than PNP devices, and the PNP complements to NPN devices, where available, are more costly.  

The diffusion process made a giant leap in transistor mass production possible. Many transistors could now be made at once on a larger silicon wafer, greatly reducing the cost. The more precise nature of the diffusion junction over the alloy junction also improved performance. As one example, tor the 2N3055 the transition frequency increased roughly another order of magnitude over the 2N1532 germanium alloy junction transistor in part 1, to 1.5 MHz.  

The hometaxial-base structure is a single simultaneous diffusion into both sides of a homogenously-doped base wafer, one side forming the collector and the other side the emitter. A pattern on the emitter side is etched away around the emitter, down to the P-type layer, to form the base. The emitter is left standing as a plateau or “mesa” above the base.

The 2N3054 was electrically identical to the 2N3055 except for its lower current and power capabilities. It’s smaller TO-66 package however was never very popular and was quietly phase out in the early 1980’s, sometimes along with some of the devices that were packaged in it!

Process improvements beyond the single diffused hometaxial-base structure continued through the 1960s with silicon transistors, including double diffused, double- and triple diffused planar and epitaxial structures. The epitaxial structure is a departure from the diffused structures in that features are grown onto the top of the base wafer. With greater control of doping levels and gradients, and more precise and complex geometries, the performance silicon power transistors continued to improve in most all aspects.

Plastic-packaged power transistors have for the most part come to displace hermetic metal packages like the TO-3 (TO-204AA), first due to the lower cost of the part and second, with simpler mounting, reducing the cost and labor of the products they are incorporated into. One drawback of most of the plastic-packaged power devices is their maximum temperature rating has been reduced to typically 150 oC, taking back quite a bit of temperature headroom provided by the same devices in hermetic metal packages. Sometimes there is a price to be paid for progress! Pictured in figure 2 are two (of many) popular power device packages, the smaller TO-220AB and the larger TO-247.

Figure 2: TO-220AB and TO-247 power device plastic packages

It’s pretty fascinating to see how transistors and the various processes used to manufacture them evolved over time. In these two posts I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the world of power transistors and power devices. For one there is a variety of other transistor types not touched upon, including a variety of power FETs. Power FETs have made major inroads in all kinds of applications in power supplies. Also work continues to provide higher power devices in surface mount packages. These are just a couple of numerous examples, possibly something to write about at a future date!

References: “RCA Transistor Thyristor & Diode Manual” Technical Series SC-14, RCA Electronic Components, Harrison, NJ 


  1. There is a little mistake. The larger transistor on figure 2 is TO-247, not TO-127 that is actually smaller than TO-220, although it may look like a TO-247.

  2. Hi Martin, You are quite right, thanks for pointing that out. You've got a keen eye for detail! I made some corrections. I'm thinking I had taken a photo with a TO-220 and TO-127 together at the time as well but ended up putting in the one with a TO-247 instead, without making updates.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.