Black silicon was discovered because [Eric] Mazur started thinking outside the boundaries of the research he was doing in the late 1990s. His research group had been financed by the Army Research Organization to explore catalytic reactions on metallic surfaces.
“I got tired of metals and was worrying that my Army funding would dry up,” he said. “I wrote the new direction into a research proposal without thinking much about it — I just wrote it in; I don’t know why.” And even though there wasn’t an immediate practical application, he received the financing.
It was several years before he directed a graduate student to pursue his idea, which involved shining an exceptionally powerful laser light — briefly matching the energy produced by the sun falling on the surface of the entire earth — on a silicon wafer. On a hunch, the researcher also applied sulfur hexafluoride, a gas used by the semiconductor industry to make etchings for circuits.
The silicon wafer looked black to the naked eye. But when Dr. Mazur and his researchers examined the material with an electron microscope, they discovered that the surface was covered with a forest of ultra-tiny spikes.
At first, the researchers had no idea what they had stumbled onto, and that is typical of the way many scientific discoveries emerge. Cellophane, Teflon, Scotchgard and aspartame are among the many inventions that have emerged through some form of fortunate accident or intuition.
“In science, the most exciting expression isn’t ‘Eureka!’ It’s ‘Huh?’” said Michael Hawley, a computer scientist based in Cambridge, Mass., and a board member and investor in SiOnyx.
Black silicon has since been found to have extreme sensitivity to light. It is now on the verge of commercialization, most likely first in night vision systems.
Researchers at the University of Manitoba conducted an experiment (PDF) in which they asked two groups—one made up of professional engineers, the other of volunteers given standard instructions—to construct a dike using standard sandbags. The professionals were able to create a sandbag dike 12 feet tall that proved quite effective. But the 6-foot-tall dike prepared by the unsupervised volunteers failed when the water reached its peak level.