"HEMT" redirects here. For the military truck, see Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck.
The electrons generated in the thin n-type AlGaAs layer drop completely into the GaAs layer to form a depleted AlGaAs layer, because the heterojunction created by different band-gap materials forms a quantum well (a steep canyon) in the conduction band on the GaAs side where the electrons can move quickly without colliding with any impurities because the GaAs layer is undoped, and from which they cannot escape. The effect of this is to create a very thin layer of highly mobile conducting electrons with very high concentration, giving the channel very low resistivity (or to put it another way, "high electron mobility"). This layer is called a two-dimensional electron gas. As with all the other types of FETs, a voltage applied to the gate alters the conductivity of this layer.
Ordinarily, the two different materials used for a heterojunction must have the same lattice constant (spacing between the atoms). As an analogy, imagine pushing together two plastic combs with a slightly different spacing. At regular intervals, you'll see two teeth clump together. In semiconductors, these discontinuities are a kind of "trap", and greatly reduce device performance.
A HEMT where this rule is violated is called a pHEMT or pseudomorphic HEMT. This is achieved by using an extremely thin layer of one of the materials - so thin that the crystal lattice simply stretches to fit the other material. This technique allows the construction of transistors with larger bandgap differences than otherwise possible, giving them better performance.
Another way to use materials of different lattice constants is to place a buffer layer between them. This is done in the mHEMT or metamorphic HEMT, an advancement of the pHEMT. The buffer layer is made of AlInAs, with the indium concentration graded so that it can match the lattice constant of both the GaAs substrate and the GaInAs channel. This brings the advantage that practically any Indium concentration in the channel can be realized, so the devices can be optimized for different applications (low indium concentration provides low noise; high indium concentration gives high gain).
Applications are similar to those of MESFETs - microwave and millimeter wave communications, imaging, radar, and radio astronomy - any application where high gain and low noise at high frequencies are required. HEMTs have shown current gain to frequencies greater than 600GHz and power gain to frequencies greater than 1THz. (Heterojunction bipolar transistors were demonstrated at current gain frequencies over 600 GHz in April 2005.) Numerous companies worldwide develop and manufacture HEMT-based devices. These can be discrete transistors but are more usually in the form of a 'monolithic microwave integrated circuit' (MMIC). HEMTs are found in many types of equipment ranging from cellphones and DBS receivers to electronic warfare systems such as radar and for radio astronomy.
The invention of the HEMT is usually attributed to Takashi Mimura (三村 高志) (Fujitsu, Japan). However, Ray Dingle and his co-workers in Bell Laboratories also played an important role in the invention of the HEMT.