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Mechanical and Civil Engineering Seminar

Friday, December 10, 2021
1:00pm to 2:00pm
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"Investigation of electronic fluctuations in semiconductor materials and devices through first-principles simulations and experiments in transistor amplifiers"
Alex Choi, Graduate Student, Mechanical & Civil Engineering,

PhD Thesis Defense


Electronic noise, or stochasticity in the current, voltage, and frequency of a carrier signal is caused by microscopic fluctuations in the occupation of quantum electronic states. In the context of scientific instrumentation, understanding the physical origin of these fluctuations is of paramount importance since the associated stochasticity ultimately limits the fidelity of information transmitted through electronically-processed signals. The unifying theme of the work presented in this thesis is the study of electronic fluctuations in semiconductor materials and devices. Our interest in this topic is twofold. First, while the Nyquist law dictates the equivalence of noise and transport properties for systems in thermal equilibrium, this relationship breaks down for systems driven out of equilibrium by external forcing. Simulating non-equilibrium electronic fluctuations can therefore provide new insights into the microscopic processes that control energy and momentum relaxation which would not be available from conventional studies of transport alone. Second, cryogenic low noise amplifiers based on high electron mobility transistors (HEMTs) are widely used in electromagnetic detector chains in applications such as radio astronomy, deep space communications, and quantum computing. The design and optimization of HEMT devices have conventionally relied upon empirical circuit-level models of fluctuations in devices. As the noise performance of modern low-noise amplifiers has saturated to levels five to ten times above the standard quantum limit, these empirical models are unable to resolve the microscopic origin of the limiting excess noise. In this work, we investigate electronic noise in semiconductor materials and devices with a combination of first-principles simulations and Schottky thermometry experiments in transistor amplifiers.

First, we present our work on the development of novel parameter-free simulations of non-equilibrium noise in semiconductor materials. While the ab initio theory of low-field electronic transport properties such as carrier mobility is well-established, an equivalent treatment of electronic fluctuations about a non-equilibrium steady state has remained less explored. Starting from the Boltzmann Transport Equation, we develop an ab initio method for hot electron noise in semiconductors. Our formalism enables a parameter-free approach to probe the microscopic transport processes that give rise to electronic noise in semiconductors. Next, we apply the developed method to compute the spectral noise power in two materials of technological interest, GaAs and Si. In our first study in GaAs, we show that despite the well-known dominance of optical phonon scattering, the spectral features in AC transport properties and noise originate from a surprising quasi-elasticity in the scattering of warm electrons with the lattice. In our second study, we apply the method to Si which possesses a more complicated multivalley conduction band. This study demonstrates that the widely-accepted one-phonon scattering approximation is insufficient to reproduce the warm electron tensor and that incorporating second-order mechanisms, such as two-phonon scattering, may be critical to obtain an accurate description of noise in such materials.

Finally, we discuss our work on developing deeper understandings of electronic noise in real devices with a focus on transistor amplifiers. While the first-principles work described above is appropriate for evaluating noise in ideal materials, in real semiconductor devices, charge carriers are influenced by mechanisms such as defect scattering, size effects, and reflections at interfaces. Owing to the complexity of these mechanisms, HEMT noise is typically treated with empirical models, where the physical noise sources are reduced to fitting parameters. Existing models of HEMT noise, such as the Pospieszalski model, are unable to resolve the mechanisms that set the noise floor of modern transistor amplifiers. In particular, the magnitude of the contribution of thermal noise from the gate at cryogenic temperatures remains unclear owing to a lack of experimental measurements of thermal resistance under these conditions. We report measurements of gate junction temperature and thermal resistance in a HEMT at cryogenic and room temperatures using a Schottky thermometry method. Based on our findings, we develop a phonon radiation model of heat transfer in the device and estimate that the thermal noise from the gate is several times larger than previously assumed. Our work suggests that self-heating results in a practical lower limit for the microwave noise figure of HEMTs at cryogenic temperatures.

Attend this thesis defense Virtually on Zoom at:

Zoom meeting ID:


Passcode: 890308

For more information, please contact Sonya Lincoln by email at lincolns@caltech.edu or visit https://www.mce.caltech.edu/seminars.