silicon wafer

Silicon vs. Silicone: What’s the Difference?

Read Time: 4 minutes

With just a single letter separating them, the question of silicon vs. silicone might seem like a minor distinction. The truth is, one of these is an element, and one is a synthetic polymer — and that makes all the difference.

We find ourselves practically surrounded by silicon and silicone daily, and each has a distinct set of properties and useful applications. What are they, and what do we use them for? Read on to find out.

What Is Silicon?

Many of us have at least a vague idea of what factories use silicon for. It’s in our computers, smartphones and wristwatches. What is it, what does it do and why do we rely on it so much?

Silicon is a naturally occurring crystalline metalloid element. It has an atomic number of 14 — signifying 14 protons in its nucleus — and lands between aluminum and phosphorus on the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Oxygen is the most dominant element in the Earth’s crust — and the human body. Silicon follows as the second-most-plentiful element on the planet. It presents itself as silicon dioxide in the wild, found in the form of quartz and silica. It also appears in sandstone, jasper, flint and opal.

Although electronics come to mind anytime silicon is mentioned, it enjoys widespread usage, such as:

  • Decorations: Ceramics and pottery.
  • Building materials: Mortars, concretes, stucco and bricks.
  • Silicates: Combined with reactive metals and other materials to form granite.
  • Silicon carbide: A typical abrasive and component in lasers that produce particular kinds of light.
  • Solar panels: silicon semiconductors doped with gallium and arsenic convert sunlight into electrical current.
  • Semiconductors: Silicon conducts current in controlled circumstances but not in others, instrumental in circuit boards.

When observed for the first time, scientists believed silicone was a compound rather than an element. Further exploration of yielded the truth about its structure and began to unlock its dizzying number of uses in industry.

Today, silicon is everywhere, finding its way into every electrical current to function. You’ll find the highest concentration, though, at the beach — its a primary component of sand.

What Is Silicone?

Silicone is a synthetic polymer — a substance composed of long chains of repeating molecules — that appears as liquid, rubber or flexible plastic.

Factories produce silicone. First, they isolate silicon from silica by heating large volumes of quartz sand to 1800° Celsius. Then, they mix the silicon powder with methyl chloride and heat it again, triggering a reaction. The result is mostly dimethyldichlorosilane, a primary building block of silicone. Experts put the mixture through a sophisticated distillation process, which separates each component.

With it comes to silicon vs. silicone, both are vital to the world economy. Silicone is relevant across multiple industries due to properties like water and light resistance. It protects against UV light and sticks to glass. This substance is non-toxic, yet it repels microbial growth. Plus, it has lower thermal conductivity, allowing it to regulate temperatures better.

This synthetic polymer is the basis of a variety of products, such as:

  • Medical products
  • Plumbing gaskets
  • Electronic assemblies
  • Adhesives and sealants
  • Textiles and paper coating
  • Nonstick baking and cooking tools

You might be surprised how often you use silicone in day-to-day life. It’s used in beauty and cosmetic products to promote less sticky white residue and shinier hair. It gives sunscreen and lotion that long-lasting effect. You can find silicone in most consumer electronics, from keyboards and mice to computers and printers. You’ll also find it in sporting goods, like goggles and face masks.

Liquid silicone rubber (LSR) is of particular interest to engineers and material science specialists. Compared to other elastomers, it has better chemical stability, electrical insulation and resistance to heat. LSR is the material of choice in medical applications with biocompatibility and durability as priorities.

Silicon vs. Silicone

While silicon is a key ingredient in silicone, the two are very different in their physical properties. Yet they both enjoy widespread industrial usage. Plus, they support the development of numerous products.

The primary difference when it comes to silicon vs. silicone is the former is a naturally occurring element. Some say silicon could serve as a building block for alien life — the way carbon forms the basis of terrestrial life. While the theories are entertaining, scientists cast doubt on them.

Carbon and silicone share many characteristics — both bond to oxygen, form polymers and have a valence of four. However, when carbon oxidizes, it forms carbon dioxide, a gas. When silicon oxidizes, it creates silica, a solid. Silicon also binds to oxygen molecules differently,

Regardless of the role in extraterrestrial life, silicon and silicone are constants here on Earth. Physical chemists and other scientists work to expand or knowledge. The future will likely bring new permutations and an abundant of convenient uses.

Read more chemistry topics here!

Silicon vs. Silicone: What’s the Difference?
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Category: ChemistryTech

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.