Why is silicon used for computer chips?

22.10.2019 62

During the ’50s, the tech world found a reliable partner in silicon.

Let’s just say that thanks to silicon instead of having room-sized computers, we’ve got laptops we can take everywhere. This material was the reason to leave behind the old circuit design, miniaturize it,make it faster and much more affordable for everybody.

Yes, the development of the integrated circuit (IC) improved the situation by setting the different electronic circuits of a computer on just a piece of semiconductive material called a “chip”. IC left behind the old and fragile vacuum tubes, reduced the size of computers, allowing for their mass-production.

What is silicon?

In the periodic table, this chemical element belongs to the carbon group that includes carbon, germanium, tin, lead, and flerovium. Identified as “Si”, it is the eighth-most abundant element in the universe by its weight. And if we just talk about our planet, 28.2% of the Earth’s crust contains silicon. So there is solid storage of the material ‘at home!’

Silicon is a metalloid, so it has some metal features.Yet, it is not a true metal. And here we find its relevance for the computer industry. It is a good semiconductor so it allows electricity to pass through, but you can control easily the flow unlike with metals.

In other words, a metal conducts electrons by nature and it is hard to turn this property off, according to different needs. An insulator material just like plastic or wood doesn’t allow electricity to pass through them. Meanwhile, a semiconductor allows electricity to pass while working as an insulator at the same time.

Other silicon’s advantages

Silicon is quite cheap thanks to its abundance and is not that hard to purify. It also works well at a wide range of temperatures and you can modify it chemically to change its electrical properties. This way, it will address as much electricity as you need.

This makes it possible, for instance, to pass from “off” to “on” mode, and vice-versa, at normal temperature, or to let electricity pass through certain transistors selectively, without burning the circuits. Moreover, you can use just one material to design plenty of different components in the same device.

In short, that is why silicon became ideal for computer chips use. The extra small transistors in our CPUs needed insulated areas to control and direct the flow of electricity precisely.

The future of silicon

This material already has an important place in the history of tech advance, but the development hasn’t stop. High-performance processors where electrons move even faster than in silicon are being designed.

On the other hand, transistors are made smaller every day to make chips more powerful and more power-efficient. Silicon will be useful to the point allowed by its chemical properties.

To put this in context, now that companies use nanometer chips, silicon won’t be able to satisfy those needs and some other materials will be required. Or who knows, soon we could have a combination of silicon with other elements to achieve a great improvement somehow.

The path from the vacuum tube-circuit design to the miniature-modern-transistor age was built with silicon, but let’s see how materials will re-shape future computer tech.