Sarah has a doctorate in chemistry, and 12 years of experience teaching high school chemistry & biology, as well as college level chemistry.
Imagine you are at the beach. You settle down under an umbrella and run your toes through the sand. You build a sandcastle with your niece and nephew. But have you ever thought about what sand is?
The chemical name for sand is silicon dioxide (SiO2 ) or 'silica'. The silicon element at the heart of that molecule is used in almost everything that you touch during the day from your cell phone to the conditioner that you use on your hair. Let's find out more about this useful element!
Silica has been used by human civilization for a long time. Some tools made by the first humans had silica flints. In fact, the name 'silicon' is derived from the Latin word for 'flint', silicis.
Chemists weren't really interested in the structure of silica until Antoine Lavoisier proposed that it was an element in 1787. In the early 1800s, another chemist Sir Humphry Davy, who was famous at the time for finding elements, proclaimed that silica was in fact a compound, made up of more than one element. However, his tried and true method of element discovery using electrolysis didn't yield an element from silica.
The Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius gets the credit for discovering silicon. He isolated the element by heating potassium metal with potassium fluorosilicate in 1824.
Silicon Versus Carbon
Silicon is in group 14 and period 3 of the periodic table. Remember, groups are the vertical columns and the rows are periods. Elements in the groups share similar properties.
Silicon is particularly interesting to scientists because it shares so many similar traits with carbon. Both elements are found in group 14, which means they have four valence electrons, the electrons that are responsible for forming chemical bonds.
This means that carbon and silicon can form similar molecules. For example, you are probably familiar with carbon dioxide, which leaves your body when you exhale. There is also a silicon form of that molecule called silicon dioxide, which is what makes up the sand beneath your feet on the beach.
Okay, so, big deal. Carbon and silicon are really similar. What does that actually mean? Well, carbon is the building block of life on earth. Humans are a big bunch of carbon molecules that interact in a symphony to create life. Scientist and science fiction writers have often proposed that if life exists on other planets, it very well may be based on silicon instead of carbon because of their similarities.
Properties of Silicon
Silicon has an atomic number of 14, which means it has 14 protons in its nucleus. It is also the 14th element on the periodic table and has the chemical symbol Si.
Silicon is a metalloid or semi-metal, which is a group of metals that have some properties of metals and some properties of nonmetals. Pure silicon has a shiny, metallic color. It will not react with acids (except hydrofluoric acid), but will react with bases. It does not react with oxygen in the air because a thin layer of silicon dioxide forms on the surface, protecting the elemental form.
Silicon has 23 isotopes with mass numbers ranging from 22 to 44. Remember, isotopes of an element have the same number of protons, but different amounts of neutrons. The mass number tells how many protons and neutrons an isotope has. There are three naturally occurring isotopes of silicon and twenty isotopes that are artificial.
Silica or silicon dioxide is a very prominent molecule that has the atom silicon in it. Silica was used to make flints in ancient cultures, and the name silicon comes from the Latin word for flint. Antoine Lavoisier proposed that silica was an element, but Sir Humphry Davy believed it was a compound. Jöns Jacob Berzelius proved Davy correct by isolating the element in 1824.
Silicon is in group 14 and period 3 of the periodic table and has four valence electrons in its Lewis structure. The four valence electrons means that silicon can bond in a way similar to carbon. Because of this, scientist and science fiction writers have pondered that extraterrestrial life may be silicon-based.
Silicon has the atomic number 14, which means it has 14 protons in its nucleus. It has the chemical symbol Si and is classified as a metalloid. It will react with bases and hydrofluoric acid, but no other acids. There are three natural isotopes of silicon and 20 artificial isotopes of silicon with mass numbers ranging from 22 to 44.
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