Fifty years ago, who could have imagined that silicon dioxide—the material of ordinary beach sand—would become one of the most important materials of present-day optics and electronics? Yet SiO2 is arguably the most crucial material component in current-generation fiber optics and metal-oxide-semiconductor (MOS) device technology. In MOS field-effect transistors (MOSFETs), SiO2 serves not only as the gate insulator, but also as the “field oxide” (which isolates various components of an integrated circuit) and as the packaging material which seals the device from outside contamination. In these roles silica acts as a “perfect dielectric,” being characterized by an essentially infinite resistivity (actually ~1016 Ohm · m at 300 K). The ability to form such a high quality dielectric film with a near-perfect lattice match on single-crystal silicon continues to favor silicon-based MOS technology over technologies founded on electrically superior GaAs.
In the rapidly developing fiber optic arena, fused silica is still “king” due to a combination of properties, including extremely high transparency over a range of usable wavelengths (Figure 1), low material dispersion (~0 at 1.3/üm), high tensile strength (~ 150 kpsi), and high chemical durability. In addition, bulk forms of silica continue to find application in lenses, prisms, windows, and low-coefficient-of-thermal-expansion reflective optics; thin silica films are common components of the highly reflective and anti-reflective surface coatings which are laid down on reflective and transmissive optics, respectively.