From the earliest chips to the latest technologies, silicon has long played a major role in semiconductor manufacturing as the substrates (wafers) on which devices are built. Yet silicon wasn’t always thought of as the world’s main chip-making material like it is today. For instance, long before it found a home in the semiconductor industry, silicon in the form of common rocks was among early man’s first tools. You might also be surprised to learn that silicon, like water, is unusual in that it expands when it freezes. And did you know that silicon is the eighth most abundant element in the universe by weight? Keep reading to learn more fun facts about this interesting and useful element.
1) Silicon gets its name from the Latin “silex,” meaning flint or hard stone. Originally named “silicium,” the element’s name was changed in the early 1800s to “silicon,” making it more parallel with carbon and boron.
2) Contrary to what some may think, silicon and silicone are quite different. Silicon is a naturally occurring element, number 14 on the periodic table. Silicone is a synthetic material made of silicon–oxygen polymers used for a variety of applications.
3) Pure silicon has the same crystal structure as diamond, which is made of carbon – the element that sits above silicon in the periodic table.
4) When ultrapure, silicon is a gray solid with a glossy sheen. Although it looks like a metal, silicon is classified as a metalloid – it conducts electricity only under certain conditions – making it well-suited for the electronics industry.
5) Silicon is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Silica in the form of silicon dioxide (SiO2) is the most abundant compound in the earth’s crust.
6) Some of the earliest tools made by humans included sharp flints made from silica. During the Stone Age, these included hunting tools (such as arrows and spears) and wood-working tools (such as scrapers and picks).
7) Sand has a high percentage of silicon and is the starting material to make high-purity silicon wafers on which semiconductor devices are made.
8) Electronic grade silicon must be at least is 99.9999999% pure. Also referred to as nine-nines or 9N, this level of purity means that only one in a billion atoms is allowed to be something other than silicon.
9) The first commercial silicon transistor was announced in 1954, starting what would become decades of extraordinary innovation in the semiconductor industry.
10) In 2015, more than 10 million square inches of silicon materials were shipped for semiconductor applications – that’s equivalent to more than 900 Olympic soccer fields!
To learn about the devices that power your everyday technology, read our “Ten Fun Facts about Semiconductors” article.