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Photoconductivity is an optical and electrical phenomenon in which a material becomes more electrically conductive due to the absorption of electromagnetic radiation such as visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared light, or gamma radiation.
When light is absorbed by a material such as a semiconductor, the number of free electrons and electron holes increases and raises its electrical conductivity. To cause excitation, the light that strikes the semiconductor must have enough energy to raise electrons across the band gap, or to excite the impurities within the band gap. When a bias voltage and a load resistor are used in series with the semiconductor, a voltage drop across the load resistors can be measured when the change in electrical conductivity of the material varies the current through the circuit.
Classic examples of photoconductive materials include :
- the conductive polymer polyvinylcarbazole, used extensively in photocopying (xerography);
- lead sulfide, used in infrared detection applications, such as the U.S. Sidewinder and Soviet (now Russian) Atoll heat-seeking missiles;
- selenium, employed in early television and xerography.
When a photoconductive material is connected as part of a circuit, it functions as a resistor whose resistance depends on the light intensity. In this context, the material is called a photoresistor (also called light-dependent resistor or photoconductor). The most common application of photoresistors is as photodetectors, i.e. devices that measure light intensity. Photoresistors are not the only type of photodetector—other types include charge-coupled devices (CCDs), photodiodes and phototransistors—but they are among the most common. Some photodetector applications in which photoresistors are often used include camera light meters, street lights, clock radios, infrared detectors, nanophotonic systems and low-dimensional photo-sensors devices.
Some materials exhibit deterioration in photoconductivity upon exposure to illumination. One prominent example is hydrogenated amorphous silicon (a-Si:H) in which a metastable reduction in photoconductivity is observable (see Staebler–Wronski effect). Other materials that were reported to exhibit negative photoconductivity include molybdenum disulfide, graphene, indium arsenide nanowires, and metal nanoparticles.
In 2016 it was demonstrated that in some photoconductive material a magnetic order can exist. One prominent example is CH3NH3(Mn:Pb)I3. In this material a light induced magnetization melting was also demonstrated thus could be used in magneto optical devices and data storage.
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