The Most Innovative Uses For Silicon

September 7, 2016

silicon[Image Source: Edited/Wikipedia]

Silicon is arguably one, if not, the most important element for humanities evolution through modern history and the industrial revolution. The element was discovered in 1824 by Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius after he heated chips of potassium inside a container, then washed away the residue and byproducts. Stuck on the inside of the container remained almost pure silicon.

Silicon is now produced by heating sand with carbon to temperatures nearing 2200°C. It is the seventh most abundant element in the universe, and one of the most versatile elements constantly used and implemented in products by humans.


Soon after the ice age, a new era of humanity began. Around 8,000 BC Middle Eastern people already began to farm. With an influx of materials and foods, new ways had to be developed in order to store them for long periods of times. While fire was used for many years prior, it was largely unconstrained and rather dangerous. With a need for greater control over fire, clay ovens were developed. Clay, with a large composition of Kaolinite (Al2Si2O5(OH)4) proved to be incredibly heat resistant, yet able to be easily molded when wet. While they retained simplistic functionality, ovens proved to be an unexpendable resource.  The ovens permitted early generations to preserve food and harden bricks, enabling populations to grow as more structurally sound houses could be produced in a timely manner that would last for generations. The large influx of food and building materials were to become an integral component in the prosperity and survival of future generations.


While it may not be obvious, glass has played a large role in the bloom of humanity, early generations heavily relied on naturally occurring glass, obsidian, to create knives, arrowheads, and even money. However, the first glass productions can be traced back to Syria in 5000BC. With an obviously large amount of silicone residing within and on the Earth’s crust, it was only a matter of time until someone witnessed the rock melt and harden into glass. Although, in the beginning of glass manufacturing it proved uncannily difficult to work with glass.

Glass melting furnaces were rather small with barely enough heat to melt the glass. However, after the Syrian invention of the blow pipe, the production of glass became easier, faster, and more economical. The Roman empire largely adopted glass making and implemented it in all countries under its control. Glass craftsmen discovered new ways to make the glass stronger, more clear, and more resistant to fractures.

Today, glass is implemented across practically all buildings. Today, glass can be made to be almost as strong as steel, tough enough to withstand multiple bullets, and used to generate electricity. Although some clear materials have been developed out of plastics and even wood, glass remains the most versatile, leaving it as the clear choice.

Transistors and Electronic Use

It would be impossible to discuss the innovations of silicon without mentioning its most remarkable implementations withing the electronic world, even earning itself a name within the United States- Silicon Valley. Specifically pertaining to transistors, silicon led to the development of man’s greatest achievements- durable, powerful computers.

Silicon is not a metal nor a nonmetal. It belongs to the same family as carbon- the metalloid. Silicon demonstrates properties of metals and nonmetals, able to transmit a current based on whether or not it is charged or not. Thus, an ‘on’ or ‘off’ position can be obtained, enabling binary function.

While the first transistors were made from germanium, their restrictions in operating temperatures and current leakage issues while in the “off” state severely hindered their operating potentials.  Despite silicon being more difficult to work with, high-purity “semiconductor-grade” silicon enables devices to function from -55 to 125°C- a significant improvement in computational potential. In 1954, Bell Labs chemist Morris Tanenbaum developed the first functional silicon transistor, forever changing the world of computers.

Solar Cells

Silicon became a major focal point for scientists and engineers alike. In early 1954, engineer Daryl Chapin and physicist Gerald Pearson worked on a particular method in which a layer of boron atoms were diffused  into wafers of n-type silicon which in turn created large areas of p-n junctions residing slightly below the surface. Illuminating a light source on the junctions generated a strong electric current as based on the photovoltaic effect discovered by Ohl in 1940, (1940 Milestone). The apparatus was able to sustain an efficiency approaching 6 percent.  The new device was dubbed the “solar battery“. Preceding the 1950’s, solar cells were already being used on a large scale, providing power to rural telephone systems and space satellites.

Today, silicon is implemented in virtually every project. Silicons versatility enables it to resist heat while retaining metalloid properties which allowed for transistors to be manufactured. Now, silicon has become an integral component in electronics, while still being heavily implemented in construction products. Silicon is the world’s most versatile material, it is of the most important elements on Earth. With it, many, if not most of the world’s innovations were created largely due to the discovery of silicon.

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