One impressively simple process lies at the heart of the digital revolution. Before the incredible powers of the natural element silicon were revealed and effectively exploited, creating electronics meant stringing together bulky, individual transistors and other components. Once researchers discovered how silicon could be etched and transformed in ways that produced transistors that were tinier but every bit as effective, the rate of progress exploded.

The process of Wafer Fabrication is what has allowed this to happen, giving us today’s powerful personal computers and compact, but capable, mobile phones. The process begins when a suitable piece of silicon or other semiconductor is treated with a chemical oxide that coats its entire surface.

Another agent can then be used to etch the existing one, stripping away a layer of the chemical and revealing the bare silicon underneath. This can form the basis for electronic channels that connect digital components or serve as a precursor to those components themselves.

In the latter case, further etching will be done to actually form depressions or wells in the surface of the silicon itself. Once again, these new features can be used as-is for particular purposes, or they can be supplemented with additional work that will make them more specialized and capable.

In many cases, for example, chemicals known as doping agents are strategically applied to the silicon, particularly in areas where channels and wells have already been formed. These chemicals can alter the basic electrical function of the silicon, leading to more sophisticated effects than are possible through the simpler techniques.

All of this work might sound incredibly complicated and fussy, and in some sense much of it is. What makes modern digital technologies possible, though, is that the work can be accomplished repeatedly and at a grand scale, thanks to the development of a variety of special techniques.

Although the formation of a single silicon transistor might sound forebodingly difficult, the fact is that these tiny electronic devices are routinely and economically created by the hundreds of millions. That remarkable fact is what allows people today to enjoy such powerful and affordable electronic devices and continues to transform life as we know it.