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The Story of Silicon – A Vital Part of Our Modern World

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What’s inside a computer?

IT systems run our modern world, and these, in turn, are made up of millions of computers. But what is actually inside a computer? Yes, we have all heard the word “semiconductor,” but what is a semiconductor made out of?

The answer is sand! When you go to the beach and make castles out of the sand, you are playing with the material at the core of computers. Computer chips are all made out of white silica (silicon and oxygen), which is the chemical name for the sand you find on beaches. 

Do you know that a toy that plays a slight musical tone and moves some part has more computing power than what was in the Apollo rockets that took man to the moon? This is all thanks to silicon.

The advantages of silicon

Silicon is useful in computer chips because it can be made to act like a traffic light. When we want to stop an electric current, the silicon chip is like a red light. When we want the current to pass, the silicon chip is like the green light. This simple ability to say yes or no is the backbone around which computers are built.

The second advantage of silicon is that it is so cheap. Silicon is found in nearly every object on Earth. In fact, more than 90% of the Earth’s outer layer is made from silicon together with oxygen. Thus, silicon is not only in the sand at beaches; it is in nearly all the rocks on Earth. Silicon combines easily with oxygen, aluminum, iron, calcium, and many other elements. 

A component of life?

Silicon is found in nearly every object on Earth except in living things. Life on Earth is based on carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a little bit of phosphorus. 

Both silicon and carbon can make friends with many other elements and thus form large collections of atoms – called molecules. Therefore scientists are experimenting and believe that life could also be constructed out of silicon. Perhaps in some distant planet, there is a life form made out of silicon.

Many other uses

Silicon has many other uses other than in computers. Silicon is part of nearly all building materials via concrete, it is found in ceramics which are used to make our dining plates, and silicon is also what glass is made out of. Every time you look through a window – you have to thank silicon for doing so. Silicon is added to steel as well as aluminum to give them better strength. 

Without silicon, we would not have built our modern world, but initially, it was called the “poor man’s alloying agent” and only used in steel and glass manufacturing. It was in the 1890s that silicon’s use as a semiconductor was discovered.

So valuable is silicon for our tech-based century that the home of computers is named “Silicon Valley.” Next time you open your eyes, look around, and you will enjoy knowing that you are looking at some form of silicon most of the time.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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