You probably already know that silicon is the material from which, at least for the most part, both PC processors and almost all chips in the industry are made. Much has been said about possible more efficient substitutes than silicon, such as the “miraculous” graphene that at the time seemed the solution to all problems, but the reality is that silicon is and continues to be the material with which they are manufactured processors. You want to know why? In this article we will tell you everything.
During the 1950s, the technological world found a reliable partner in silicon, and since then – and it has been around 70 years – it has continued to be used. Let’s say that thanks to silicon, instead of having computers the size of a room we have the PCs we know today, some that even fit in the palm of the hand. This material was the reason to leave behind the old circuit design, miniaturize it, make it faster and also much more affordable.
Why is silicon used to make processors?
The development of integrated circuits improved their situation by placing the different electronic circuits of a computer in a single piece of semiconductor metal called a “chip.” Thus, integrated circuits left behind the old and fragile vacuum tubes and, by reducing their size so much, allowed their mass production.
In the periodic table of the elements, silicon belongs to the group of carbon, germanium, tin, lead, and phlerovium. Identified as “Yes”, it is the eighth most abundant element in the known universe, and even if we speak only of planet Earth, 28.2% of the earth’s crust contains it. Thus, the conclusion is that silicon is one of the most common materials and therefore one of the simplest and cheapest raw materials to obtain.
The advantages of using silicon in chip manufacturing
Silicon is a metalloid, so it has some metallic characteristics but it is not a true metal as such. And here we find its relevance for the computer industry: it is a good semiconductor , so it allows the passage of electricity but, unlike metals, the flow can be easily controlled. In other words, a metal conducts electrons by nature and cannot (or is difficult) to deactivate that property, whereas an insulating material such as plastic or wood does not allow electricity to pass through them. For its part, a semiconductor like silicon allows electricity to pass through while acting as an insulator at the same time.
So far we already have three advantages: it is abundant, it is cheap and it also acts as a semiconductor in a natural way, so it does not require great techniques to make it work as human beings need (it is very easy to purify). It also works well over a wide range of temperatures and can be chemically modified to modify its electrical properties. In this way, it is able to handle as much electricity as is needed.
This makes it possible, for example, to switch from “off” to “on” mode and vice versa or to allow electricity to pass through certain transistors selectively without burning the circuits and, furthermore, at room temperature . Furthermore, only this material can be used to design many different types of components all within the same device.
The tiny transistors that make up a PC processor need isolated areas and the flow of electricity can be precisely directed, and all of this is provided by silicon with minimal purification treatment, and is also a material that performs well at temperature. atmosphere, which is abundant, and which is cheap. These are the reasons why today, 70 years after it began to be used in the industry, it continues to be used and will continue to be for a long, long time.
What material will be the processors of the future?
Silicon already has an important place in the history of technological advancement, but development does not stop and everything has its limitations. High-performance processors are being designed in which electrons move even faster than in silicon. On the other hand, the transistors get smaller every time in order to make the chips more powerful and efficient, and silicon will continue to be useful to the extent that its physical and chemical properties allow, but as we have said before , everything has a limit.
To put this in context, now that companies use nano chips, silicon can no longer meet these needs for much longer, and research will be needed with other materials, potentially alloys of silicon and other metal. The path from vacuum tube circuit design to the modern transistor era has been built with silicon, but the future is clearly out of its scope and other materials will be needed.