Silicon vs. Silicone

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A reader has observed confusion between the words silicon and silicone and has asked for a post to illustrate the difference.

Silicon (chemical symbol Si) is a non-metallic element that ranks next to oxygen in respect of abundance in the ground.

Silicone is a chemical compound that contains silicon.

The teeny plates that contain a set of electronic circuits are usually made of silicon. Because so many silicon chip manufacturers located their facilities in the Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco, the area came to be known as “Silicon Valley.”

Silicone has a great many different applications for everything from breast implants to spacecraft assembly. It’s used in the manufacture of textiles, paint, cosmetics, and cookware with non-stick surfaces.

Here are some examples from the Web in which the words appear to be unintentionally reversed:

Plan your busy social life with this fun planner from the Silicone Valley collection. —a stationery site.

Social Media Goes to Washington — Obama Heads to Silicone Valley —a news site.

Some years ago, when silicon baking wares came out, I jumped on them with glee. —a personal blog.

Sometimes, the “error” is deliberate. For example, an episode of the television series Botched is called “Silicone Valley.” It’s about a woman who has had numerous plastic surgeries with horrific results.

An article in Newsweek is headed “Home: It’s Silicone Valley.” The article is about silicone cookware.

A car wash located in Miami, Florida is called “Silicone Valley Car Wash.” Silicone is an ingredient in some car waxes.

If you are referring to the element, the valley, or computer chips, spell the word silicon. For products or applications, spell it silicone.

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3 thoughts on “Silicon vs. Silicone”

  1. Dear Dr. Maddox,

    I have been enjoying your posts, and I have found many of your writing tips very useful for my everyday writing. As a non-native English speaker, reading your posts is pretty much my only way to learn new things about the language – my last formal English classes were five years ago as I can remember.

    The topic you chose today is of special interests to me, since I am a chemist by training. I have seen many misuses between these two words as well. While silicon, as a word, is straightforward to explain, silicone can be complex and confusing. Rather than “a chemical compound that contains silicon”, silicone can be the general name for a class of compounds, or more exactly, polymers. Depending on the degree of polymerization and other chemical compositions in addition to silica, there can be many forms of silicones, from silicone oil to silicone rubber. They can all be simply referred to as silicones because they all contain the same basic building blocks called the siloxane group. Similar confusions, although less seen, may occur between carbon and carb (short for carbohydrate) , and between palladium and platinum.

    Anyway, thank you for writing this piece of tip to clarify the confusion. I look forward to learning more about English from you!

    Best regards,

  2. So silicon is an element. Silicone is something that contains silicon. I notice similar confusion with mucus vs mucous. Those are even homonyms, which probably compounds the problem. Not compounds like in chemical compounds…wouldn’t want to go down that road…

  3. Mr. Xin Su is quite correct in what he wrote.
    Furthermore, the silicon in transistors and diodes is extremely pure, and it is made that way by very difficult processes.
    On the other hand, silicones ALWAYS contain large amounts, in particular, of oxygen. If you know anything about chemical bonding, the basic “backbone” of all silicones looks like this:
    Si – O – Si – O – Si – O – Si – O – Si – O …
    All of the other chemical bonds are then taken up by hydrogen atoms, or in some cases, some small amount of fluorine takes the part of some of the hydrogen atoms.
    Thus, remember these three essential ingredients in all silicones:
    silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Not “any old elements” will do.

    By the way, a Chinese colleague of mine (another electrical engineer) told me that the Chinese word for “silicon” is “si”, coming directly from the chemical symbol “Si”, and sounding just like “si” in Spanish or Italian. “Si, senor?”

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