Have you ever heard of Silicon Valley? That part of California where CPUs are designed and startups seem to flourish all the time. But have you ever stopped to think about why it’s called Silicon Valley? Or why exactly does this Silicon seem to be so universally used for computer chips? Instead of some other material like copper, graphite, or iron.
Well, Silicon has a number of properties that make it unusual among other chemical elements. You see, at the moment, scientists know of only 118 elements. From these 118 known elements, only 6 are classified as metalloids. Silicon is one of the metalloids.
These metalloids exhibit metal-like characteristics but aren’t true metals. Usually, they have a silvery shiny look like true metals. But instead of being malleable, they’re often quite brittle. Meaning they can break apart easily like glass.
And although metalloids can conduct electricity like metals, they aren’t quite as good at it. Which is where the word semiconductor comes from. This semiconductivity is especially very important to the working of electronics. Remember that computers and other electronics that use microchips need electricity to operate.
However, their whole principle of operation relies on being able to let electricity pass through certain transistors selectively. A normal metallic conductor such as copper would let electrons through too easily. Meaning way too many transistors would light up at once. This means that your CPU wouldn’t be able to process instructions correctly.
Why Is Silicon Better Than Other Semiconductors for Computer Chips?
We still haven’t answered the question of why Silicon specifically? That is instead of some other semiconductor like Germanium. Well, although Silicon Valley might be an expensive place to live, actual Silicon is quite cheap. Also, Silicon is pretty easy to find in the Earth’s crust. In fact, Silicon is one of the most common elements in the universe.
So it’s entirely possible that spacefaring civilizations in some distant galaxy are also using Silicon CPUs. Additionally, Silicon has other benefits such as being able to operate well at a wide range of temperatures. Silicon can also be easily doped with other chemicals that are necessary for microprocessors to work.
For example, it’s quite easy to form an insulating layer of Silicon dioxide just by sticking Silicon into a hot furnace. These are necessary because the tiny transistors in a CPU need insulated areas to further control and direct the flow of electricity with Precision. So it is Silicon’s versatility that makes it a natural choice.
Also Read: DDR5 SDRAM is Coming: Release Date and Specs
Is Silicon Perfect for Computer Chips and Electronics?
Even though Silicon has proven to be extremely useful, it is far from perfect. Although it is cheap and abundant, there is a trade-off with how quickly it can conduct electricity. Other semiconductors are able to move the electrons around faster.
That means they could be used to make higher performance processors, albeit at a higher cost. There is another limitation of Silicon that means it will not be the universal material in our computer chips for too much longer. You see, transistors keep getting smaller and smaller in order to make our chips more powerful and more power-efficient.
However, we’re getting to the point where Silicon cannot be made much smaller than what we already have due to its chemical properties. In fact, Intel announced that for its 7nm chips that could be released around 2021, they will be using something other than Silicon. To put that in context, 7 nm is only about 35 atoms wide.
We actually have a comprehensive article covering one such material called Gallium Nitride (GaN) that is slated to replace Silicon in electronics. While smaller transistors and faster CPUs may require more exotic materials, there’s no doubt that the path to this future of tomorrow was paved with Silicon.
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