Silicon: The Gold of Electronics


Look around you. Do you have a digital watch on your wrist, a smart car key in your pocket, a cell phone in your hand or a laptop in your briefcase?

We are carrying more and more silicon on us wherever we go.

I didn’t notice the creep into my life so dramatically until recently. And now it’s impossible to ignore how dominant silicon has become.

I’ve been working in solar (primarily crystalline silicon) for the past two decades, at many factories and at many installations. Before that, I was engineering in a silicon fab for Texas Instruments pulling single-crystal silicon boules and cutting them up into monocrystalline wafers. These days, wafers are further cut into computer chips, or they are made into photovoltaic (PV) cells by infusing boron- and phosphorus-producing solar electric wafers, or PV cells.

By 2013, polycrystalline silicon production, used mostly in producing solar cells, is projected to reach 200,000 metric tons per year. The monocrystalline semiconductor silicon production, used in computer microchips, remains below 50,000 tons/year.

It was a recent trip to an electric utility where I was performing smart grid certifications that made me realize the ubiquity of silicon in our lives.

Today, utilities and independent system operators have computer banks and control rooms that monitor the grid for their territories. These are becoming more sophisticated and are starting to resemble major server farms. In addition, smart meters and sensors along the grid are sending information to both autonomous and monitored controls.

And as silicon-based PV becomes more dominant as a distributed resource, the inverter is handling more of the grid and high-value smart grid functionalities — feeding that information back into the sophisticated computer banks of utilities.

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