Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 14

Fourteen days left, fourteen elements.  Which Washington Capital will Fearless match to number 14?...


Before it was an adjective that named a geographical feature in northern California (Silicon Valley), “silicon” was a common, garden variety element of the periodic table.  It is an element rarely found in its pure form in nature, but it is found in gobs of compounds (“gobs” being a common measurement in chemistry).  That’s what makes it the eighth most common element in the universe, by mass, and that allows one to find it in silica (dioxides of silicon), silicates, and of course…silicone.

As silica, it is found most often in glass, but it is also used in the production of optical fiber for telecommunications, and it is used in the production of porcelain and stoneware.  It is also used in food additives and for thermal protection.  It is used to get into tight places in hydraulic fracturing of geological formations to extract shale oil and gas.  It is used in toothpaste as an agent to remove dental plaque.

Silicates are the heavy lifters of the silicon family of substances.  It is what makes up sand and is, in fact, the single most common substance in the earth’s crust.  It is commonly used in what is referred to as “Portland cement, “ which is the most common type of cement, used in building applications (concrete, mortar, stucco) and in grout.

Silicones are synthetic compounds of silicon that have applications in both adhesives and lubricants, sealants and insulation, in cookware, dry-cleaning and in medical applications.

The establishment of silicon as an element brought out the big guns of chemistry in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Antoine Lavoisier of France, the “Father of Modern Chemistry;” Sir Humphry Davy of England, Louis Jacques Thénard and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac of France.  None, however, were able to isolate it in its pure form.  That would be left to Jöns Jacob Berzelius of….TA-DA… Sweden, in 1823. 

The odd part of all that was that its discovery as a pure element came after it was named.  The somewhat unimaginatively named Thomas Thomson, a Scottish chemist, looked at it previous name – “silicium” – and decided it was not “metally” enough (we just made up that word).  In 1817 he dumped the “ium,” stuck on “on” (because it resembled boron and carbon), and voila!  “Silicon.”

What we have is a common element that has many applications in which it finds itself in tight places.  It can be a an abrasive or a lubricant.  It took a while for it to be established as a stand-alone element even though there had been a lot of work and speculation to establish it as such.  Sounds like a player who might often throw himself into tight places on the ice, who might be a bit abrasive and more inclined to throw his body around than his size would suggest, who might be shifty and slippery enough to escape harm, and who spent a long time establishing himself as an NHL player.

Silicon… the “Mathieu Perreault” of the elements of the periodic table.

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