What's the difference between insulators, semiconductors and conductors?
Answered by HowStuffWorks
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  1. We rely heavily on the flow of electrical energy, even if it comes from solar power or the battery of our cars, to keep us informed and entertained. These chips and parts help run all of the gadgets and everyday items we take for granted -- that's what they have in common. The main difference between these three types of materials is how well they conduct electricity, a property largely based on the arrangement of electrons around the nucleus of each atom involved.

    Most semiconductors are made from silicon. Semiconductors do not have as many open holes for free electrons to jump into, but some electrical current is still able to pass in smaller amounts. Manufacturers dope the silicon by adding tiny amounts of impurity elements, also called dopants or doping atoms. Dopants might be N-types or P-types, depending on whether they're meant to accept positive or negative charges from electrons. Dopants change the silicon's features in areas that the manufacturer predefined to affect the semiconductor's electrical conductivity. Still, remember that the name is "semiconductor." Although doping helps semiconductors they still are not great conductors.

    In conductors, there are plenty of open spaces for electrons to jump from the shell of one atom to that of another, getting everything revved up when an electrical current comes along. Electricity can steadily flow through conductors. Metals are the most common conductors we see, particularly copper. Others are silver, aluminum and gold. These conductors do a much better job of creating or maintaining electrical energy than do semiconductors.

    Finally, insulators have fewer of those free holes available for electron transfers -- if they have any at all. An insulator is the opposite of a conductor because it does not allow electrons to flow easily from one atom to another -- the insulator's electrons are too tightly bound. Examples of insulating materials are plastic, rubber, glass and wood. These insulating materials do not conduct electricity and are used in electronics to help protects us from the conducting elements and the electrical charges they produce. For example, the cords from computers are wrapped in plastic coating to keep users from being shocked by the electricity running through the cord's wires.


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