Silicon is a chemical element with symbol Si and atomic number 14. It is a hard and brittle crystalline solid with a blue-grey metallic luster; and it is a tetravalent metalloid and semiconductor. It is a member of group 14 in the periodic table: carbon is above it; and germanium, tin, and lead are below it. It is relatively unreactive. Because of its large chemical affinity for oxygen, it was not until 1823 that Jöns Jakob Berzelius was first able to prepare it and characterize it in pure form. Its melting and boiling points of 1414 °C and 3265 °C respectively are the second-highest among all the metalloids and nonmetals, being only surpassed by boron. Silicon is the eighth most common element in the universe by mass, but very rarely occurs as the pure element in the Earth's crust. It is most widely distributed in dusts, sands, planetoids, and planets as various forms of silicon dioxide (silica) or silicates. Over 90% of the Earth's crust is composed of silicate minerals, making silicon the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust (about 28% by mass) after oxygen.
Silicon of 96–99% purity is made by reducing quartzite or sand with highly pure coke. The reduction is carried out in an electric arc furnace, with an excess of SiO2 used to stop silicon carbide (SiC) from accumulating
SiO2 + 2C → Si + 2CO
2SiC + SiO2 → 3Si + 2CO
This reaction, known as carbothermal reduction of silicon dioxide, is usually conducted in the presence of scrap iron with low amounts of phosphorus and sulfur, produing ferrosilicon. Ferrosilicon, an iron-silicon alloy that contains varying ratios of elemental silicon and iron, accounts for about 80% of the world's production of elemental silicon, with China, the leading supplier of elemental silicon, providing 4.6 million tonnes (or 2/3 of the world output) of silicon, most of which is in the form of ferrosilicon. Another sometimes used reaction is aluminothermal reduction of silicon dioxide, as follows:
3SiO2 + 4Al → 3Si + 2Al2O3
Leaching powdered 96–97% pure silicon with water results in ~98.5% pure silicon, which is used in the chemical industry. However, even greater purity is needed for semiconductor applications, and this is produced from the reduction of tetrachlorosilane or trichlorosilane. The former is made by chlorinating scrap silicon and the latter is a byproduct of silicone production. These compounds are volatile and hence can be purified by repeated fractional distillation, followed by reduction to elemental silicon with very pure zinc metal as the reducing agent. The spongy pieces of silicon thus produced are melted and then grown to form cylindrical single crystals, before being purified by zone refining. Other routes use the thermal decomposition of silane or tetraiodosilane. Another process used is the reduction of sodium hexafluorosilicate, a common waste product of the phosphate fertiliser industry, by metallic sodium: this is highly exothermic and hence requires no outside fuel source. Hyperfine silicon is made at a higher purity than almost every other material: transistor production requires impurity levels in silicon crystals less than 1 part per 1010, and in special cases impurity levels below 1 part per 1012 are needed and attained.
Most silicon is used industrially without being purified, and indeed often with comparatively little processing from its natural form. Thus, the vast majority of uses for silicon are as structural compounds, either as the silicate minerals or silica (crude silicon dioxide). Silicates are used in making Portland cement (made mostly of calcium silicates) which is used in building mortar and modern stucco, but more importantly, combined with silica sand, and gravel (usually containing silicate minerals like granite), to make the concrete that is the basis of most of the very largest industrial building projects of the modern world.
Silica is used to make fire brick, a type of ceramic. Silicate minerals are also in whiteware ceramics, an important class of products usually containing various types of fired clay minerals (natural aluminium phyllosilicates). Traditional glass (silica-based soda-lime glass) also functions in many of the same ways, and is also used for windows and containers. In addition, specialty silica based glass fibers are used for optical fiber, as well as to produce fiberglass for structural support and glass wool for thermal insulation.
Elemental silicon is added to molten cast iron as ferrosilicon or silicocalcium alloys to improve performance in casting thin sections and to prevent the formation of cementite where exposed to outside air. The presence of elemental silicon in molten iron acts as a sink for oxygen, so that the steel carbon content, which must be kept within narrow limits for each type of steel, can be more closely controlled.
The properties of silicon can be used to modify alloys with metals other than iron. "Metallurgical grade" silicon is silicon of 95–99% purity. About 55% of the world consumption of metallurgical purity silicon goes for production of aluminium-silicon alloys (silumin alloys) for aluminium part casts, mainly for use in the automotive industry. Silicon's importance in aluminium casting is that a significantly high amount (12%) of silicon in aluminium forms a eutectic mixture which solidifies with very little thermal contraction. This greatly reduces tearing and cracks formed from stress as casting alloys cool to solidity. Silicon also significantly improves the hardness and thus wear-resistance of aluminium.
Pure silicon is an intrinsic semiconductor, which means that unlike metals, it conducts electron holes and electrons released from atoms by heat; silicon's electrical conductivity increases with higher temperatures. Pure silicon has too low a conductivity (i.e., too high a resistivity) to be used as a circuit element in electronics. In practice, pure silicon is doped with small concentrations of certain other elements, which greatly increase its conductivity and adjust its electrical response by controlling the number and charge (positive or negative) of activated carriers. Such control is necessary for transistors, solar cells, semiconductor detectors, and other semiconductor devices used in the computer industry and other technical applications. In silicon photonics, silicon can be used as a continuous wave Raman laser medium to produce coherent light.