Silicon is the eighth most common element in the universe by mass, but very rarely occurs as the pure element in the Earth's crust. It is most widely distributed in dusts, sands, planetoids, and planets as various forms of silicon dioxide (silica) or silicates. Over 90% of the Earth's crust is composed of silicate minerals, making silicon the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust (about 28% by mass) after oxygen.
Most silicon is used commercially without being separated, and often with little processing of the natural minerals. Such use includes industrial construction with clays, silica sand, and stone. Silicates are used in Portland cement for mortar and stucco, and mixed with silica sand and gravel to make concrete for walkways, foundations, and roads. They are also used in whiteware ceramics such as porcelain, and in traditional quartz-based soda-lime glass and many other specialty glasses. Silicon compounds such as silicon carbide are used as abrasives and components of high-strength ceramics.
Elemental silicon also has a large impact on the modern world economy. Most free silicon is used in the steel refining, aluminium-casting, and fine chemical industries (often to make fumed silica). Even more visibly, the relatively small portion of very highly purified silicon used in semiconductor electronics (< 10%) is essential to integrated circuits — most computers, cell phones, and modern technology depend on it. Silicon is the basis of the widely used synthetic polymers called silicones.
Silicon is an essential element in biology, although only tiny traces are required by animals. However, various sea sponges and microorganisms, such as diatoms and radiolaria, secrete skeletal structures made of silica. Silica is deposited in many plant tissues, such as in the bark and wood of Chrysobalanaceae and the silica cells and silicified trichomes of Cannabis sativa, horsetails and many grasses.
In 1787 Antoine Lavoisier suspected that silica might be an oxide of a fundamental chemical element, but the chemical affinity of silicon for oxygen is high enough that he had no means to reduce the oxide and isolate the element. After an attempt to isolate silicon in 1808, Sir Humphry Davy proposed the name "silicium" for silicon, from the Latin silex, silicis for flint, and adding the "-ium" ending because he believed it to be a metal. Most other languages use transliterated forms of Davy's name, sometimes adapted to local phonology (e.g. German Silizium, Turkish silisyum). A few others use instead a calque of the Latin root (e.g. Russian кремний, from кремень "flint"; Greek πυριτιο from πυρ "fire"; Finnish pii from piikivi "flint").