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The Silicon Age - How one element has powered most of human innovation

28 August 2019 6:30 PM
Wherever you look you will see silicon at work. This is a tribute to the 14th element on the periodic table and its many uses.

First tools

Silicon is an element that takes its name from the Greek word for flint. It does so because humanity has used flint since the Stone Age to make tools. Flint is a form of quartz which is silicon dioxide. Its the combination of the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust - oxygen - and the second most abundant - Silicon. Construction with cement changed the scale of buildings that could be designed. A central part of cement is sand which is silicon dioxide.

Glass

Glass for insulation and allowing light to enter those buildings came with the discovery and refinement of glass, which is a form of silicon dioxide, adding soda-lime makes it clear.

Experiments with soda-lime glass resulted in the discovery of lenses which allowed humans to restore their eyesight and go further to create telescopes and microscopes using the properties of optics to focus and amplify light and what we can see.

So besides providing for windows, drinking vessels, spectacles and scientific instruments like prisms - glass had helped create the field of photography which lead to cinema and television and video.

Electrical

With the arrival of electricity and the appliances that could use it, Silicon was needed again. There were two options for generating electricity: Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC). The AC option won and is used all around the world now. But many electrical components require DC. Direct current only flows one way and can be created by using a diode which converts AC to DC. When you plug a phone charger in a wall the little boxy part is a diode which is made using the special properties of silicon as a semiconductor to charge the phone battery and allow your phone to work.

You may know silicon semiconductors for a different use - transistors. A transistor is an electronic gate created using two types of silicon with three terminals. It is the basis for how an electrical device can store the binary bits represented by zeros and ones which is created by a transistor being open or allowing electricity to flow and representing a one or be in a closed state which prevents the flow of electricity representing a zero.

Silicon chips begin as a pure crystal of silicon which is cut into super-thin slices upon which transistors are grown and etched to build up multiple layers that make up a computer chip with upwards of a billion transistors.

The development of silicon-based computing occurred in many parts of the world but it is best known for the place that also takes its name - Silicon Valley.

Communications

The output of a computer chip processing hundreds of thousand million operations per second may be the data you called to read this from the internet. It is delivered to you as quickly as possible using the internet's major connector - a fibre optic cable. And that is created from silicon dioxide drawn into super fine wires.

The company Corning Inc which you may first have come to know about for their kitchen glassware known as Corningware developed fibre optics to effectively allow almost all the light to travel down the fibre and create the information superhighway.

Maybe the screen of the device you are reading this on is also one of their products a thin but tough and scratch-proof glass called Gorilla glass.

Energy

So at each stage of your reading of this article, you are relying on a form of silicon. There is still another major use of silicon and its semiconductive properties - generating electricity. Solar cells generate electricity by using light to excite electrons and then only allow them to flow in a way to create a circuit which generates electricity.

Even more uses

But wait there is more. Pottery comes from clay - a silicate.

Silicone the sealant to keep things dry and stop leaks is made from silicon too.

Need to smooth something, odds are you use an abrasive made from silicon.

And it keeps time in every electric watch and computer by counting the vibrations of a quartz crystal.

Still, it does not end there, quantum computing which for some applications is much better than current computers creates qubits from you guessed it, very pure silicon.

And the future of computing might replace electricity with light, light generated by lasers that are made using silicon to send photons to do computations far quicker than any current electrical versions.

Folding phones

The reason I came to realise how incredible silicon is, was researching the move to foldable mobile phones. These small devices able to fit in your pocket can unfold into something the size of a tablet. There are versions from Huawei and Samsung.

The issue with the early versions was the flexible screens which did not work very well. They are not made of glass, but Corning is developing a glass that can bend and so the next generation may return to using a flexible glass screen.

That development will create more new applications like thinner and lighter but equally strong vehicle windows.

We may see glassware that can be formed like plastic but that can more easily be recycled.

Whatever we next create it is fair to say we have always lived in a Silicon Age and that is one element that makes for some very unusual business.

Picture credit: Silicon Periodic chart symbol Science Activism CC BY 4.0

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28 August 2019 6:30 PM

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