Developments to Watch
A SIMPLE WAY TO TURN SAND INTO SILICON COMPOUNDS
If ordinary beach sand were gold, we might all be richer. Well, now it may be as important as gold--black gold, that is. University of Michigan scientist Richard Laine has discovered a very simple formula for making chemicals, polymers, and ceramics from silica instead of petroleum. This could cut American dependence on oil and related products, says Laine.
Currently, it's more expensive to make silicon-based materials than those derived from oil. Sand must be heated to about 2,000F to produce a metal-grade silicon that then reacts with other chemicals to create materials such as rubbery seals on space craft, surgical implants, and glass. Computer chips are made through a different process.
Laine's method is both cheaper and easier. Heating ethylene glycol, potassium hydroxide, and sand at only 300F breaks silica into new compounds -- without going through a metal phase. It's "analogous to mixing beach sand with antifreeze and Liquid Plumr," says Laine. His formula could also yield a range of novel products such as a substance that would fireproof wood; a clear, electricity-conducting polymer that could be made into windshields that can be heated to melt ice or snow; and a liquid-crystal compound such as that now used in watch displays, which could be used in space because it remains stable at high temperatures.EDITED BY PAMELA J. BLACK