On Earth, a wide variety of silicate minerals occur in an even wider range of combinations as a result of the processes that have been forming and re-working the crust for billions of years. These processes include partial melting, crystallization, fractionation, metamorphism, weathering, and diagenesis.
Living organisms also contribute to this geologic cycle. For example, a type of plankton known as diatoms construct their exoskeletons ("frustules") from silica extracted from seawater. The frustules of dead diatoms are a major constituent of deep ocean sediment, and of diatomaceous earth.
In most minerals in the Earth's crust, each silicon atom is the center of an ideal tetrahedron, whose corners are four oxygen atoms covalently bound to it. Two adjacent tetrahedra may share a vertex, meaning that the oxygen atom is a bridge connecting the two silicon atoms. An unpaired vertex represents an ionized oxygen atom, covalently bound to a single silicon atom, that contributes one unit of negative charge to the anion.
Some silicon centers may be replaced by atoms of other elements, still bound to the four corner oxygen corners. If the substituted atom is not normally tetravalent, it usually contributes extra charge to the anion, which then requires extra cations. For example, in the mineral orthoclase [KAlSi
n, the anion is a tridimensional network of tetrahedra in which all oxygen corners are shared. If all tetrahedra had silicon centers, the anion would be just neutral silica [SiO
n. Replacement of one in every four silicon atoms by an aluminum atom results in the anion [AlSi
n, whose charge is neutralized by the potassium cations K+
Note that tectosilicates can only have additional cations if some of the silicon is replaced by an atom of lower valence such as aluminium. Al for Si substitution is common.
Nesosilicates (from Greek νῆσος nēsos, island), or orthosilicates, have the orthosilicate ion, which constitute isolated (insular) [SiO4]4− tetrahedra that are connected only by interstitial cations. The Nickel–Strunz classification is 09.A –examples include:
Sorosilicates (from Greek σωρός sōros, heap, mound) have isolated pyrosilicate anions Si
7, consisting of double tetrahedra with a shared oxygen vertex—a silicon:oxygen ratio of 2:7. The Nickel–Strunz classification is 09.B. Examples include:
Cyclosilicates (from Greek κύκλος kuklos, circle), or ring silicates, have three or more tetrahedra linked in a ring. The general formula is (SixO3x)2x−, where one or more silicon atoms can be replaced by other 4-coordinated atom(s). The silicon:oxygen ratio is 1:3. Double rings have the formula (Si2xO6x)2x−. The Nickel–Strunz classification is 09.C. Possible ring sizes include:
Note that the ring in axinite contains two B and four Si tetrahedra and is highly distorted compared to the other 6-member ring cyclosilicates.
Inosilicates (from Greek ἴς is [genitive: ἰνός inos], fibre), or chain silicates, have interlocking chains of silicate tetrahedra with either SiO3, 1:3 ratio, for single chains or Si4O11, 4:11 ratio, for double chains. The Nickel–Strunz classification is 09.D – examples include:
Phyllosilicates (from Greek φύλλον phyllon, leaf), or sheet silicates, form parallel sheets of silicate tetrahedra with Si2O5 or a 2:5 ratio. The Nickel–Strunz classification is 09.E. All phyllosilicate minerals are hydrated, with either water or hydroxyl groups attached.
Tectosilicates, or "framework silicates," have a three-dimensional framework of silicate tetrahedra with SiO2 or a 1:2 ratio. This group comprises nearly 75% of the crust of the Earth. Tectosilicates, with the exception of the quartz group, are aluminosilicates. The Nickel–Strunz classifications are 09.F and 09.G, 04.DA (Quartz/ silica family). Examples include: