The Amazing Surface Barrier Transistor
August 1957 Radio & TV News Article
Transistor Museum website, "The Philco Surface Barrier Transistor
(SBT) was the 'hottest' transistor around until the late 1950s. This
device performed very well at high frequencies and was used extensively
in radio and computer circuits. Hobbyists were delighted to find such
an inexpensive high frequency device... [Edwin] Bohr authored many well-remembered
transistor construction projects in the 1950s/60s." Many of Bohr's construction
articles featuring SBTs were published in Radio Electronics
magazine, and this was one of them from 1957. The manufacturing process
is described where jet streams of an electrolyte were shot at both sides
of the germanium crystal to etch it as required - Neanderthal in nature
compared to today's etching processes.
|August 1957 Radio & TV News
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The Amazing Surface Barrier Transistor
By Edwin Bohr
availability of SB transistors now makes it important to learn something
about these new types.
Years ago, when junction transistors
were just beginning to nudge the one-megacycle limit of useful operation,
surface-barrier transistors were percolating away at 30 mc. and higher.
And, to top it all, they were doing this with absurdly small values
of collector voltage and current - small even by ordinary transistor
standards. Today, the surface-barrier transistor, in its particular
field of application, still remains without peer.
Yet, in the
popular technical magazines, this surface-barrier transistor has received
hardly more than a casual mention. The reason for this is simple. The
SB transistor has not been an "available" transistor. Surface-barrier
transistors have been with us for a long time, but only on an engineering
sample basis; and their development and potentialities largely have
hidden in the laboratory and between the pages of learned journals.
This situation has been given a complete about face. Anyone
with a few dollars in his pocket can now buy a surface-barrier transistor.
In fact, he can choose from several types. Some units have cut-off frequencies
as high as 60 mc.
Surface-barrier transistors are beginning
to appear in personal receivers and automobile radios. At least one
piece of ham gear has appeared using this fabulous transistor. Military
equipment, too, now employs the SB transistor, dispelling early rumors
that this unit was undesirably fragile and delicate. The current availability
of this component will undoubtedly kindle a wildfire of interest in
surface-barrier transistor applications and circuitry.
article we will hit the high spots of the SBT, its theory, history of
development, and present some practical applications and circuits. Some
of the things the SBT can do really make a person's mouth hang open.
As an enticement to read further, we will tell you in advance that one
of the circuits is a scale-of-two counter containing only four components
- two SBT's and two resistors! If the SBT is unique, which it is, some
of its circuits are even more unique.
By now, the curious reader has undoubtedly wondered how the name "surface-barrier
transistor" is derived.
Fig. 1. Jets of electrolyte stream from nozzles toward the germanium
wafer during the manufacture of the SB transistor.
Briefly, we can hint at an answer to
this question by indicating that the ordinary diffused junction transistor
contains two forms of semiconducting material. In contrast, the SBT
contains only one form. Available diffused junction transistors are
either p-n-p or n-p-n types. Available SBT's are simply n-type transistors.
The emitter and collector of the SBT both are formed by plating to the
surface of germanium, forming a surface-barrier rectifying interface.
Momentarily, we are dropping the theory right here. An understanding
of semiconductor physics is, of course, anything but easy and necessitates
a broad knowledge in many direct and accessory fields. After all, to
run, one must first learn to crawl and then to walk. We, alas, can't
do it all in fifteen hundred words. However, we can still give the reader
plenty of good functional "walking" information. Don't worry, we will
be back to the theory in a few paragraphs.
The SBT is a development of the Philco Corporation
and, at present, they and Sprague Electric Co. are the only manufacturers.
Just as the transistor was an outgrowth of research into the field of
solids, the SET was the result of further Philco research into changes
in the properties of germanium just beneath the crystal's surface.
Atoms of germanium behave very differently at the surface of
a crystal from the way they do in the interior. The changed behavior
extends from the surface into the crystal for a depth of about one ten-thousandth
of an inch, forming a so-called surface barrier. Scientists found the
SB effect can be utilized to form a useful amplifying semiconductor
device if several special conditions can be met.
must be attached to the germanium in a way that will produce a minimum
distance between the collector and emitter. This distance between collector
and emitter must be the same order of thickness as the surface barrier.
Second, the germanium must be completely free from contamination or
These are problems of the highest degree. Nevertheless,
by the magic of modern technology, they have been solved. In fact, the
spacing between emitter and collector in the SBT has actually been reduced
to a few thousandths of a millimeter and with tolerances of a millionth
of an inch. This small miracle is accomplished by a clever process called
To begin the manufacture of SBT's, blanks of single-crystal n-type germanium
are cut and etched to a thickness of 0.003 inch. The blank is next placed
between two tiny glass nozzles, mounted on a common axis. Jets of electrolyte
stream from the nozzles toward the germanium wafer. An electric current
passes through this stream of electrolyte, removing the germanium under
the point of impact, an action that is the reverse of electroplating.
Fig. 1 shows this arrangement clearly.
Fig. 2. (A) Oscillator and (B) Superregenerative circuit.
Fig. 3. (A) D.C. amp. (B) Bi-stable circuit.
Fig. 4. Wide-band video frequency amplifier.
As the electrolytic machining
proceeds, the emitter and collector surface barriers begin to approach
each other, the current density reduces, thus slowing down the etching
for vernier control of the process. This reverse-plating, or etch process,
has now caused two pits to form in the germanium blank The remaining
thickness of germanium between the pits can be controlled to ± 5%. Ninety
to 120 seconds are required for this etch.
reversal of current through the electrolyte, the drilling process is
stopped and indium emitter and collector electrodes are plated to the
surfaces of the cavities. All of this is done without interrupting the
stream of electrolyte. Indium, incidentally, is the same metal used
to form the p-type germanium in p-n-p junction transistors.
In the finished transistor the collector is twice as large in diameter
as the emitter. Hairlike leads are attached to the indium electrodes
and the transistor is ready for hermetic sealing into a small cylindrical
for all transistors are given in terms of a grounded-base circuit. For
grounded-emitter and grounded-collector service, the high-frequency
performance begins to roll off at a frequency approximately equal to
the grounded-base cut-off frequency divided by the beta gain of the
Applying this rule, we see that a conventional diffused
junction transistor, with a 20 mc. cut-off and a beta of 60 performance-wise,
begins to deteriorate at one-third of a megacycle. In contrast, the
SBT may have a cut-off frequency of 60 mc. and a beta of 10. This means
the SBT gain is smooth up to six megacycles. Tests made with the SBT
show that it gives unprecedented performance as a superhet mixer. Too,
it has the largest bandwidth-gain product of any available transistor,
making it really practical for wide-band video and i.f. amplifier applications.
To top it all, the SBT does this at collector voltages and power
levels remarkably lower than those of conventional transistors. A 30
mc. SBT oscillator, for example, can easily operate at a collector potential
of 3 volts and a current of 0.5 milliamp! A. portable receiver using
the SBT's will operate from a small three-volt battery. Using conventional
transistors, about nine volts are usually considered to be necessary.
Table 1 provides the
more important features on available Philco units. Of these, the SB-100
was the first commercially available SBT. This SB-100 and the L-5108
are generally the most useful for high-frequency and amateur-band applications.
The L-5116 will oscillate to 90 mc.
Three SBT's, the AO-1, L-5113-L,
and L-5114-L, are types made available for particular customer requirements.
The AO-1 is an inexpensive SBT and its user can probably expect widely
varying characteristics. Service technicians will find the L-5113-L
and L-5114-L used in battery sets. The L-5113-L is used for converter
and second detector service and the L-5114-L for i.f. applications.
Types 2N128 and 2N129 are military-version SBT's. Undoubtedly,
personnel in the armed services will be seeing plenty of these transistors
in FM receivers.
Another SBT, the 2N240, is available for computer
and high-speed switching circuits. This type has controlled saturation
characteristics, fitting it for numerous ultra-simple direct-coupled
"on-off" amplifier circuits. The meaning of "saturation characteristic"
will be explained later in the article.
Table 1. Types and characteristics of typical Philco SB transistors.
Surface-barrier transistor circuits
are similar in most respects to those of the p-n-p diffused-junction
transistor. The electrode voltages and bias currents have the same polarity.
In the case of high-frequency operation there is really no significant
difference between schematics for SB and p-n-p transistors. For computer
applications, the differences are really quite startling.
2A and 2B give surface-barrier circuits for operation at 20 mc. and
higher with suitable tuned circuits. For 30 mc. C may be approximately
100 μμfd. and L 6 turns spaced to 1/2 inch on a 3/8-inch coil
form. The 470-ohm resistors are insurance against excessive collector
A direct-coupled amplifier and bi-stable circuit using
the 2N240 are shown in Figs. 3A and 3B. When you look at these circuits
they appear to be printer's errors or textbook-type simplified diagrams.
But they aren't. These are good workable circuits. Let's look at Fig.
3A and see how it operates.
As you may remember, the 2N240 has
a controlled saturation characteristic, by this we mean the voltage
from collector to base, when the transistor is passing the maximum collector
current permitted by the collector resistor and the available collector
supply voltage. In other words, the voltage from collector to ground,
when the collector current has reached saturation, is called saturation
For the 2N240. the collector-to-emitter voltage with
a saturation current of 2 ma. is -0.07 volt and -0.1 volt for a saturation
current of 8 ma. Further characteristics of the 2N240 state that an
input signal of -0.1 volt from base to emitter will cause only -150
microamps of collector current.
Now if we apply an input base
current Ib1 of -0.3 ma. to V1 the collector voltage
VC1 will drop to -0.07 volt which is direct-coupled to V2.
This is not enough voltage to make V2 conduct so that VC2,
the output voltage, is practically equal to the supply voltage. However,
if we decrease the input current, VC1 will increase, driving
V2 into saturation.
If we now connect the output
lead to the input, the direct-coupled bi-stable circuit of Fig. 3B results.
With the addition of proper steering and control circuits, this type
of counter is capable of operating at frequencies higher than the best
vacuum-tube counters. The power dissipation and space requirements for
this computer circuit are extremely small.
The SB transistor
is a hot-performing video amplifier. Using simple audio-amplifier-type
RC coupling, a two-stage SBT amplifier will have adequate response out
past 3 mc. Employing peaking coils, the circuit of Fig. 4 has a 9 mc.
bandwidth and 28 db gain. Removing the coils, the bandwidth is still
sufficient for good video response.
Surface-barrier video amplifiers
are non-microphonic. We have replaced industrial-TV video preamps with
three-stage SBT preamps, eliminating all but trivial remaining microphonics
in the vidicon.
Entertainment radios, both portable and automobile,
use the SBT, with circuits almost identical to diffused-junction transistor
Sometimes there is a protective circuit to prevent burnout
of the converter or input r.f. stage caused by too-large signal from
signal generators, etc. This is necessary because the emitter and collector
connection wires inside the transistor are almost microscopic and the
thin base section is easily ruptured. Consequently, the SBT is faster
than the fastest fuse - and far more expensive.
gun-type soldering irons or conventional irons with isolation transformers
for bench work. Otherwise, possible leakage currents from the iron and
any other test instrument connected to the chassis may damage the transistors.
The surface-barrier transistor,
its performance, and fabrication, are nothing short of a modern technological
tour-de-force. Yet, it does not stop here. Already surface-barrier transistors,
using the diffusion process (SBDT units) are able to operate at tremendously
higher frequencies than the present units. Some applications, in fact,
are spectacular enough to be classed as closely guarded military secrets.
Surface-barrier transistors, however, do not replace diffused-junction
transistors. They simply give the transistor circuit engineer new inspiration
and unprecedented performance in several special applications.
How far the SBT invades the entertainment market depends, among
other things, upon the number of SBT suppliers. Today, Philco and Sprague
are the only makers. Firms generally will not use a transistor unless
there are several sources acting as alternate lifelines in the event
of strikes, material shortages, catastrophe, etc. This lack of suppliers
until now has held back transistorized power amplifiers for automobile
set and it will have the same effect on SBT radios.
practical transistorization has been pushed past the ten-meter band
by SBT's. Next, the twelve TV channels will fall before the transistor.
Anyone want to service this transistorized TV booster? Don't laugh,
it isn't too far off.
Posted November 15, 2013