Scientists Say: Silicone

Silicone is a generic term for a whole slew of humanmade polymers with a silicon-oxygen backbone

Rubbery silicone (like the pink parts of these cooking tools) is just one of the many forms this versatile material can take.

Elena Kozlova/EyeEm/Getty Images

Silicone (noun, “SILL-ih-cone”)

Silicone is a generic term for a family of humanmade materials. These materials are polymers. That means they contain large molecules that are made of smaller units joined by chemical bonds. In silicone polymers, the molecules are chains of silicon and oxygen atoms. Various organic groups of atoms — such as methyl or phenyl — may be attached to those chains.

Silicone polymers come in a wide variety of forms. Silicones can be liquids, gels or pastes. They can also be oils, greases or rubbers. The form of a silicone depends on how big its molecules are. It also depends on how much the polymer chains in the silicone are interlinked.

The silicon-oxygen bond that makes up the backbone of silicone is very stable. That makes this type of material sturdy. Silicones repel water. They can withstand high heat or frigid cold. And they do not react much with other chemicals. This has made silicones handy for lots of different uses. These materials help make electronics, buildings and more. Let’s look at few common examples.

Silicone sealants and caulks help insulate buildings and make them waterproof. Silicone muffin molds, ice cube trays and other kitchen tools are nonstick and bendy. Plus, they can withstand big temperature swings. Silicone paints on houses and bridges can likewise freeze and thaw without cracking. Waterproof silicones make durable sporting goods such as goggles and diving masks. And since silicones are not very reactive, they are great for building medical tools. These include medical implants and prostheses.

Some scientists are also using silicone to make cutting edge tech that can interact with living tissue. One group has used silicone to build “biohybrid” robots powered by beating heart cells. Another team has built silicone sleeves that help frogs regrow limbs.

In a sentence

One robot uses soft silicone fingers to catch delicate jellyfish in a gentle hug.

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Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News for Students. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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