What is Silicon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Silicon is an abundant nonmetallic element found throughout the universe. Along with its various compounds, it is used in a wide variety of industrial applications including metal alloys, circuits, soaps, and glass. It is probably best known for its use in computer chips, and lent its name to the Silicon Valley, seat of the technology industry in the United States.

Silicon combines with oxygen and takes the form of sand.
Silicon combines with oxygen and takes the form of sand.

This element was first isolated in 1824 by a Swedish chemist named Jons Jacob Berzelius. In a pure form, it has a crystalline structure and takes the 14th place on the periodic table, where it is written as Si. Silicon appears more commonly in the form of a compound such as silica (SiO2), where it is combined with oxygen, that usually takes the form of sand. Compounds can be treated to release the bound silicon, or used as they are to take advantage of the unique properties of the compound. Silicon carbide (SiC), for example, has a hardness which rivals diamond.

Perhaps the best-know application of silicon is for computer chips.
Perhaps the best-know application of silicon is for computer chips.

When silicon is mixed with other elements, the compound is often known as a silicate. Silicates are extremely abundant, and are used in a wide range of industrial processes. They can be heated or treated with other chemical compounds to release their silicon or to bind with other materials for various purposes. When alloyed with metal, this element increases the strength and hardness of the metal. Most industries use silicates in their products to make them stronger and more durable. The element is also commonly used as a base material for sealers, caulks, and some types of synthetic oils.

Silicon is used in a variety of applications, ranging from solar panels to soap.
Silicon is used in a variety of applications, ranging from solar panels to soap.

Some consumers confuse the pure element with silicone, which is a chemical compound. Silicone contains silicon, and harnesses many of its mineral properties. The compound is used in soaps and medical implants, insulators and synthetic materials. Non stick baking supplies, sealers, and shields for electrical components are also made from silicone, which is highly durable and flexible.

Silicone is used in many applications, such as making bakeware.
Silicone is used in many applications, such as making bakeware.

Silicon's abundance and myriad uses make it a commonly harvested element. Production is counted in hundreds of tons worldwide, with nations like China and the United States making up the bulk. The element is exported in a pure form for manufacturing, and is also sold in the form of finished commercial products. Manufacturers are constantly seeking out new uses for the abundant and cheap element, and the growth of sales for it is expected to continue growing indefinitely.

Silicon takes the 14th place on the periodic table.
Silicon takes the 14th place on the periodic table.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

DentalFloss

Considering that it is the second most common element in the atmosphere, you would thing that people would be more knowledgeable; I for one never realized it was quite so abundant. While I had heard of silica, or silicone oxygen, I did not realize it had quite so many other uses.

Alps13

Can you please advise the industries using silicon sealants?

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