Silicon can be found in pretty much every electronic device available today. Manufacturers use silicon to create the wafers on which most electronic circuits reside. These wafers serve as the support for these integrated circuits. When manufacturers add other elements to silicon, the conductivity of silicon increases dramatically, which allows for electronic pathways of conductivity.
The name for this process of increasing electrical conductivity is “doping.” Therefore, most producers construct integrated circuits as a silicon wafer with “doped” silicon that acts as pathways for the electrical signals. Through these methods, manufacturers can transistors, semiconductors, and solar cells – all of which are necessary for modern-day electronics!
Given that silicon is such a critical component of all electronics, it begs the questions: what is silicon, and how is it made? Let’s take a (brief) look at both of those questions.
What Is Silicon?
At its core, silicon is an element on the periodic table. It has atomic number 14. It has a high affinity for oxygen, which made it nearly impossible to isolate.
When exposed to air, the compound would bind with oxygen to create other substances. For this reason, it took until 1823 for a chemist by the name of Jöns Jakob Berzelius to produce it in its natural form.
Silicon is one of the most common elements on the planet. In your childhood (and quite possibly adulthood), you have probably interacted with silicon in various compounds that include it. Sand is nothing more than silicon dioxide (SiO2), which has one silicon atom and two oxygen ones. Since glass is made by melting sand, glass also has silicon in it. People can also find silicon in multiple other substances, including clays, flint, opal, and emeralds. In the past, when people used asbestos frequently, people could also find silicon in it as well.
How Is Silicon “Made”?
Given that silicon is a natural element, it isn’t “made,” per se, in the sense that manufacturers do not combine compounds to make silicon. Instead, people produce silicon via one of two ways – either from sand (silicon dioxide) or from vein or lode deposits within the earth. When producing pure silicon from sand, manufacturers heat it at 2200 degrees Celsius. At that temperature, the pure crystalline silicon separates, and it becomes a compound that people can turn into wafers.
Of course, with vein and lode deposits, the process is similar to mining other minerals where miners extract the silicon, and then it is heated to be reshaped and formed into wafers. These wafers need to be nearly perfect silicon to work (recall that adding other compounds changes its electroconductivity).
Therefore, wafer producers take great care to ensure that their products are as pure as possible.
Silicon Powers Modern-Day Life
It’s easy to say that silicon is the primary building block for all modern-day life. Without silicon, the phones we use, the computers on which we rely, and all the other gadgets we love wouldn’t exist. Silicon, which is the building block of all the wafers on which these circuits reside, is arguably one of the most valuable elements today!