Silicon and Silicone

I suppose the ever-evolving nature of the tech industry requires an occasional re-explanation of ‘silicon’ and ‘silicone’.

Silicon is an element, and can be found in the periodic table directly below carbon. Like carbon, it prefers to form four bonds with other elements. CO2, carbon dioxide, we all know. SiO2, silicon dioxide, is also known as quartz, and is quite hard, hence its use in sandpaper, among other things.

Chemists once thought that the atomic bond similarities between silicon and carbon might allow for complex silicon compounds, analogous to the complex carbon-based organic compounds of life. ‘Twas not to be (though Star Trek did get an episode out the idea). Instead, a chemist by the name of Frederick Kipping discovered that you could create a chain of alternating silicon and oxygen atoms pretty much as long as you wanted, and that these had useful oily and rubbery qualities. Dr. Kipping coined the term “‘silicone’ way back in 1901 to describe his discovery. Silicone (like ice cream cone) sounds ever so much nicer than polymerized siloxane…..

Silicone oils and silicone rubber have a wonderful advantage of being pretty darned near totally non-toxic to humans, and so are widely used to make medical implant devices for the repair of damaged humans, and of course their most famous cosmetic application, silicone breast implants. I once worked at Dow Corning, a major supplier of such devices, and they had a display case of silicone bits for human body repair. There were ears, noses, testicles, and many more – dozens, actually. I’m sure they’ve helped many people recover from serious injury or disease.

Silicone oils are specified for use in certain food-handling machinery where there is a chance that some of the oil may get into the food. Silicone oil is non-toxic – though a heavy dose tends to move material through your bowels in a spritely manner, to put it politely.

Your most likely everyday encounter with silicone is in bathtub caulk and similar compounds. Some folks call this RTV, which is correct, but it is a silicone rubber. Another increasingly common application is in silicone bakeware, hot pads, and related items. Silicone withstands extremely high temperatures quite nicely.

But enough about silicone. Silicon (no ‘e’), the element, is the basic compound used in the modern semiconductor industry. (There are other semi-conducting compounds, but the vast majority of the industry is based on silicon.) Silicon has a short ‘o’ sound. It rhymes with con-man, or Khan.

The area stretching along the west side of San Francisco Bay, from San Jose up past Palo A lot, is Silicon Valley. Short ‘o’ sound. It is not silicone valley. Were there a place to be designated as silicone valley, I suppose it would be the east side of Midland, Michigan, where Dow Corning is based. But that part of Michigan is pretty flat, so perhaps we should prefer silicone meadow. Have to ask my friends in Midland about this.  😉

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