Germanium, #32

Germanium is a semiconductor and is used in a multitude of electronic devices. It is in the same column as Silicon (#14) which is the most well-known of these so-called semi-metals or metalloids.

A chemist would put germanium and silicon in the Carbon Group. That’s Group 14 on a modern chart but the old notation Group IV is still much in use. All the substances have four valence electrons hence Group IV.

Tin (Sn, #50) and Lead (Pb, #82) are familiar substances of course as they have been mined and used for centuries. Last on the list is the synthetic Flerovium (Fl, #114) which was hatched in and named for a Russian laboratory in 1999.

Carbon is the element most essential to life. All of our organic substances are built on carbon molecules. There is an entire section of chemistry called organic chemistry and they don’t mean “no pesticides.” Organic chemistry means the chemistry of carbon compounds. Petroleum and all its by-products are “organic.” Coal and natural gas are as well. Carbohydrates and hydrocarbons fuel our world. Gasoline and diesel are organic, man!

Anyway, I got distracted. I think it is interesting that silicon and germanium are grouped with carbon. One does not think of chips and circuits being alive and I consider most talk about Artificial Intelligence to be nonsense, but there is a tremendous desire out there to imbue our electronic machines with life. Science fiction has long speculated on the idea of computers gaining consciousness or at least hosting the minds of other beings.

I remember punching holes in cards in a basement late at night and then running those cards through a reader that executed a program and created a print-out. It was 1977 and it was called Computer Science 1 and the language was FORTRAN. That seems like using stone tools nowadays! Our computer “minds” will be able to do a lot of marvelous things and the technology can most certainly be used to do some vile and stupid things as well, but they will not be humans even if they can mimic humans. Nor will they be intelligent or conscious, at least not in the sense we mean when we apply those terms to ourselves.

What’s this have to do with germanium? Like I mentioned it is a semiconductor and used in computer chips. Its main use is in fiber optics and we all want to have our internet delivered to us via fiber, don’t we? The point is that the stuff is a crucial component of our high-tech world. Oddly only a few hundred tonnes of the stuff are mined each year, most of it as by-products of zinc ore. A little bit goes a long way. Next to germanium, in the same row (called a period), are Gallium (Ga, #31) and Arsenic (As, #33). Both of those are also used in chip manufacture. The compound gallium arsenide (GaAs) is found in LEDs, lasers, microwave circuits, and numerous other applications.

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