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In semiconductor detectors, ionizing radiation is measured by the number of charge carriers set free in the detector material which is arranged between two electrodes, by the radiation. Ionizing radiation produces free electrons and holes. The number of electron-hole pairs is proportional to the energy of the radiation to the semiconductor. As a result, a number of electrons are transferred from the valence band to the conduction band, and an equal number of holes are created in the valence band. Under the influence of an electric field, electrons and holes travel to the electrodes, where they result in a pulse that can be measured in an outer circuit, as described by the Shockley-Ramo theorem. The holes travel in the opposite direction and can also be measured. As the amount of energy required to create an electron-hole pair is known, and is independent of the energy of the incident radiation, measuring the number of electron-hole pairs allows the intensity of the incident radiation to be determined.
The energy required to produce electron-hole-pairs is very low compared to the energy required to produce paired ions in a gas detector. Consequently, in semiconductor detectors the statistical variation of the pulse height is smaller and the energy resolution is higher. As the electrons travel fast, the time resolution is also very good, and is dependent upon rise time. Compared with gaseous ionization detectors, the density of a semiconductor detector is very high, and charged particles of high energy can give off their energy in a semiconductor of relatively small dimensions.
Most silicon particle detectors work, in principle, by doping narrow (usually around 100 micrometers wide) strips of silicon to turn them into diodes, which are then reverse biased. As charged particles pass through these strips, they cause small ionization currents that can be detected and measured. Arranging thousands of these detectors around a collision point in a particle accelerator can yield an accurate picture of what paths particles take. Silicon detectors have a much higher resolution in tracking charged particles than older technologies such as cloud chambers or wire chambers. The drawback is that silicon detectors are much more expensive than these older technologies and require sophisticated cooling to reduce leakage currents (noise source). They also suffer degradation over time from radiation.
Diamond detectors have many similarities with silicon detectors, but are expected to offer significant advantages, in particular a high radiation hardness and very low drift currents. At present they are much more expensive and more difficult to manufacture.
Germanium detectors are mostly used for gamma spectroscopy in nuclear physics. While silicon 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. These detectors are also called high-purity germanium detectors (HPGe) or hyperpure germanium detectors. Before current purification techniques were refined, germanium crystals could not be produced with purity sufficient to enable their use as spectroscopy detectors. Impurities in the crystals trap electrons and holes, ruining the performance of the detectors. Consequently germanium crystals were doped with lithium ions (Ge(Li)), in order to produce an intrinsic region in which the electrons and holes would be able to reach the contacts and produce a signal.
When germanium detectors were first developed, only very small crystals were available. Low efficiency was the result, and germanium detector efficiency is still often quoted in relative terms to a "standard" 3″ x 3″ NaI(Tl) scintillation detector. Crystal growth techniques have since improved, allowing detectors to be manufactured that are as large as or larger than commonly available NaI crystals, although such detectors cost more than €100,000.
As of 2012[update] HPGe detectors commonly use lithium diffusion to make an n+ ohmic contact, and boron implantation to make a p+ contact. Coaxial detectors with a central n+ contact are referred to as n-type detectors, while p-type detectors have a p+ central contact. The thickness of these contacts represents a dead layer around the surface of the crystal within which energy depositions do not result in detector signals. The central contact in these detectors is opposite to the surface contact, making the dead layer in n-type detectors smaller than the dead layer in p-type detectors. Typical dead layer thicknesses are several hundred micrometers for an Li diffusion layer, and a few tenths of a micrometer for a B implantation layer.
The major drawback of germanium detectors is that they must be cooled to liquid nitrogen temperatures to produce spectroscopic data. At higher temperatures, the electrons can easily cross the band gap in the crystal and reach the conduction band, where they are free to respond to the electric field, producing too much electrical noise to be useful as a spectrometer. Cooling to liquid nitrogen temperature (77 K) reduces thermal excitations of valence electrons so that only a gamma ray interaction can give an electron the energy necessary to cross the band gap and reach the conduction band. Cooling with liquid nitrogen is inconvenient, as the detector requires hours to cool down to operating temperature before it can be used, and cannot be allowed to warm up during use. Ge(Li) crystals could never be allowed to warm up, as the lithium would drift out of the crystal, ruining the detector. HPGe detectors can be allowed to warm up to room temperature when not in use.
Commercial systems became available that use advanced refrigeration techniques to eliminate the need for liquid nitrogen cooling.