Silicon or Silicone?

You might think the word play of silicon and silicone is a little like the debate over “you say tomato (toh-may-toe) and I say tomatoe” (toh-mah-toe). But while it might seem like the two words can switched easily and mean the same thing, they simply can’t be. Silicon and silicone are, in reality, two different things.

Silicon is a natural chemical found pretty much everywhere on Earth. That’s because silicon is a primary component in sand. Take a look at sand using a magnifying glass and you’ll find silicon pretty easily because it is usually found in crystal form.

Silicone, on the other hand, is a man-made substance that uses silicon as a component along with other chemicals. Silicone is made into a liquid as well as a polymer that acts a lot like rubber.

To find the most common use for silicon, think of a place in California. That’s right, Silicon Valley. It turns out silicon makes a perfect semi-conductor. If you melt silicon, the material can be made into super-thin wafers and used to manufacture the electronic circuits inside computers.

Silicone, on the other hand, is used in plenty of industries as a lubricant for machine parts. It’s also used in waterproofing; including sprays to waterproof the seams in clothing and tents or in sealants around windows. Silicone products are flexible, moisture resistant and clear. There are very different uses for the very different materials, but there are also some similarities. And that shouldn’t be surprising, because while silicon is a natural chemical element, silicone is a man-made product derived from silicon.

So both materials are used to create fireproof or heat-resistant products. However silicon is used to create ceramic glazes and glass, while silicone is used in heat-resistant kitchen tools. And because silicone is chemically inert and considered virtually non-toxic to humans, you’ll find silicone used in oven mitts, spatulas, and spoons. Silicone is also used to coat cookie sheets along with non-stick pots and pans. So, while you say potato (poh-tay-toe) and I say potatoe (poh-tah-toe) we’ll at least be clear about silicon and silicone!

 —Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a weekly science series. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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