Denis McWhan
Oxford University Press
2012 | 160pp | £29.95 (HB)
ISBN 9780199640270

Along with air and water, sand is one of the natural substances that we take for granted. The major component of sand is SiO2 in the form of quartz, and this book sets out to show how the scientific discoveries of the past century are inextricably interlinked with SiO2 and the chemicals derived from it.

Thus we read of quartz in ultrasonic devices and in quartz digital watches. Also covered are silicates in zeolites with applications in adsorption and catalysis, not to mention biomineralisation, and this is complemented by an account of x-ray diffraction.

Of course, it’s not all about SiO2. The production of ultrapure silicon by zone refining and the growth of single crystals are treated in depth. The purification of trichlorosilane is also considered, linked with a discussion of phase diagrams and the second law of thermodynamics. The effect of introducing dopants into silicon leads into semiconductors and transistors (and of course computer chips), solar cells, semiconductor lasers and LEDs, as well as optical fibres.

At the end of the book, we return to sand itself, to be reminded that most sand is used in the construction industry, in water filters in swimming pools and on golf courses. It is a tiny 0.1% of the silicon that finds its way into electronic devices upon which our civilisation depends. There is a selection of well chosen illustrations and explanations, as well as a bibliography of key papers.

This is an excellent book, a wide-encompassing expert’s overview that is warmly recommended. It is an important reminder that you cannot have the technology without the science; politicians please note.

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