Do you like long walks on the beach with the sand in your toes? How about your cellphone and laptop? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you owe your fondness to Silicon, because without it neither of those things would exist. One of the most abundant elements on the periodic table, this material’s plenty is matched only by its usefulness.
The Ground You Walk On
Silicon, a non-metallic solid (though it does have metallic sheen in high purity), is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, second only to Oxygen. It makes up nearly 28% of the crust, and can be found in basically any soil, rock, clay, or sand, so if you take a step outside, you’re almost certainly standing on Silicon.
Pure Silicon is highly reactive, and therefore doesn’t occur in nature, though its compounds can truly be seen everywhere. Most often, Silicon will react with Oxygen alone, or with Oxygen and a combination of other elements. The results of these reactions are Silica and Silicates.
Oddly enough, Silicon in its isolated form show many similarities to diamond, both chemically and physically. The key differences are that Silicon is very dark, has a much lower melting point, is significantly softer, and is much more reactive than diamond.
Early Use, Late Discovery
For such an abundant element, it took a while for science to recognize Silicon as being entirely its own. In 1824, a Swedish scientist named Jons Jacob Berzelius isolated Silicon by heating Silica along with Potassium. Berzelius also discovered cerium, selenium, and thorium. His initial method produced amorphous Silicon, but the purer crystalline version wasn’t achieved until around 30 years later.
Still, humans had long recognized the uses of Silicon. In fact, the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Chinese were using Silicon all the way back in 1500 B.C. to manufacture glass as well as beads and vases.
Now, the process of purifying Silicon looks a little different than it did in 1824, and probably significantly different than it did in 1500 B.C. The modern refinement process takes sand (which is a form of Silica) and heats it with Carbon.
Basic Building to High-Tech Abilities
Being that it is a major component of sand and clay, it stands to reason that Silicon is important for the construction of things like bricks and mortar. This means that it’s a principle component of the earliest structures built by humans. Perhaps less immediately evident is the fact that crystalline Silicon is an integral part of most electronics, including computers.
Highly purified crystalline Silicon performs the role of semiconductor for electronics; essentially when used correctly, it functions as an “on/off” switch. Without this function, your laptop, smartphone, and indeed, the entire internet, wouldn’t be possible.
Another important (though less flashy) function of Silicon is that it provides fossils. This is because it is present in plants in the form of phytoliths. These particles will not rot, so when a plant dies, they remain and form the impressions in rocks that give us fossils.
Not all effects of Silicon are positive, though. Silicon is non-toxic, but siliceous dust can cause a lung disease known as silicosis, and some Silicates (like asbestos) are carcinogenic. For this reason, laborers who work around these version of Silicon must take great precautions.
It should come as no surprise that one of Earth’s most abundant elements serves all sorts of functions, and Silicon certainly lives up to that expectation.