The man who made IT possible: Unknown silicon grower Czochralski gets year of celebrations

Jan Czochralski, who invented the process of growing single crystals, is the subject of events to mark his birthday in his Polish homeland.
Written by Michiel van Blommestein, Contributor
singe crystals
Single crystals of silicon and lithium niobate grown with the Czochralski Process. Image: ITME, JCH

His name may be almost impossible to pronounce for non-Polish speakers, but without Jan Czochralski, IT as we know it would not exist.

Wednesday is the birthday of the chemist and metallurgist who, among other things, invented a process for growing single crystals.

Even in his native Poland, Czochralski (who lived from 1885 to 1953) is virtually unknown among the general public. He is, however, the most cited Polish scientist in the world. To mark the 60th anniversary of his death, 2013 has been declared Czochralski Year by the Polish government.

His Czochralski Process, which he discovered by accident in 1916, has proven vital for IT as we know it today.

"His discovery allows for laboratory growth of large, single clear crystals of exceptional quality," said Piotr Kossobudzki, vice-chairman of the Polish Association of Science Journalists, and one of the main organisers of the Czochralski Year.

"This allows for the growth of silicon crystals measuring 2m by 0.5m within 30 to 48 hours. The silicon is chipped off in very thin sheets, which are used in transistors and for the production of microprocessors."

The natural growth process would take much too long and is limited to very small sizes of crystals, making it unviable for industrial production of electronics. The resulting crystals would also be too contaminated for real-world use, Kossobudzki said, while the level of miniaturisation that can be achieved today would be impossible to attain naturally.

"Basically, computers would still be the size of an entire room, instead of the palm of your hand," he said.

That's only one example of the importance of the Czochralski Process, since crystals of various materials are used for a range of other purposes. "A laser is also focused using a crystal. Those crystals are also grown and harvested using the Czochralski method," Kossobudzki said.

And it's not only crystals that Czochralski worked on: "He made discoveries in metallurgy used for the development of wheels that allowed trains to go much faster than before."

That Czochralski is not very well known compared to the greatest name in Polish science, Marie Curie-Sklodowska, is not only due to the highly specialised areas he worked in.

He spent most of his scientific career in Germany, between 1900 and 1928, and made his most important discoveries there. During the war, when he worked at the Technical University of Warsaw, he developed an easily manufacturable grenade for the Polish resistance.

After the war, he was marginalised by the communist government in Poland for working in Germany, and spent his last years running a small cosmetics firm.

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