Semiconductor Value Chain

Balancing semiconductor innovation vs sustainability

21 August 2023
Source: Benjamin/Adobe Stock

In an increasingly digitized global economy, semiconductor devices have become the keystone of technological advancement, powering everything from smartphones to autonomous vehicles and sophisticated computing systems. However, the production of these critical components is no small task -it’s an energy-intensive and environmentally taxing process.

With escalating concerns over a mounting carbon footprint, extensive water consumption, and the use of hazardous materials that negatively impact our environment, the semiconductor industry stands at a pivot point. It’s faced with a pressing call to balance the demand for rapid, cost-effective performance with a greater emphasis on environmental sustainability.

In response to this call, the dawn of green semiconductor manufacturing is beginning to break. Industry-wide shifts are visible, with the initiation of energy-efficient practices, reduction in carbon emissions, adoption of eco-friendly materials, and implementation of waste reduction strategies. Our shared goal? Pioneering a more sustainable future for the industry and the planet.

Charting the course of sustainability in semiconductor manufacturing

The history of sustainability in semiconductor manufacturing spans several decades, with the industry's focus shifting from early awareness to proactive initiatives. In its nascent stages during the 1960s and 1970s, environmental concerns were not a primary consideration. However, as the industry expanded, resource efficiency gained attention during the 1980s and 1990s. Engineers and manufacturers worked to reduce energy consumption, conserve water, and improve waste management.

The late 1990s and early 2000s marked a significant transition to lead-free initiatives and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) compliance, aiming to eliminate these kinds of materials from semiconductor products. In the mid-2000s, there was an upsurge in research for eco-friendly materials, leading to the adoption of sustainable packaging and low-toxicity dielectric materials. Starting from the late 2000s, energy conservation took center stage, with the integration of renewable energy sources and the implementation of green practices.

The realities of semiconductor sustainability

To understand the magnitude of the challenge, consider these key facts:

Challenge 1: Energy intensity and carbon footprint

Semiconductor manufacturing is driven by sophisticated equipment and precise control of various parameters during wafer fabrication. From the initial crystal growth stage to the exacting execution of photolithography and meticulous etching processes, each step demands considerable amounts of energy such as electricity.

Challenge 2: Water consumption and availability

Every step of silicon wafer preparation requires copious amounts of ultra-pure water (UPW). Water is a medium for light waves to produce precise images. To remove chemical residues and contaminants, water is required for rinsing and cleaning wafers. It is also critical for cooling heat-intensive operations and machinery. This reliance on water poses considerable challenges, given rising concerns over water scarcity.

Challenge 3: Hazardous materials and waste

The semiconductor industry is dependent upon a variety of chemicals that are toxic and hazardous to both humans and the environment. Simultaneously, the manufacturing processes generate substantial solid waste like scrapped wafers and packaging materials, and liquid waste such as spent chemicals and rinse water. The stringent requirements needed for handling and disposal create additional complexities and threats to health and the environment.

Navigating challenges to harness opportunities

Despite these challenges, innovative solutions are emerging. These advancements promise to support technological progress while mitigating environmental impact. The path forward hinges on inventive engineering, advanced technologies, rigorous regulatory oversight, and, crucially, an unwavering commitment to sustainability from all industry stakeholders.

Several initiatives are underway to make semiconductor manufacturing more sustainable:

Energy efficiency and renewables integration

Through process control and optimization innovations, the energy-efficient use of machinery is being improved to combat energy waste. New manufacturing methods, including low-temperature processing and dry etching, are being utilized to consume less energy than traditional processes.

The use of photovoltaic (solar) panels or wind turbines as renewable energy sources is becoming more prevalent and is being integrated into semiconductor manufacturing facilities to offset the carbon footprint. In some cases, excess renewable energy is sold back to the grid, providing an additional revenue stream. Smart grid technology, with its peak-shaving strategies and load balancing, is being launched to reduce reliance on non-renewable energy sources.

Materials innovations

Materials such as gallium nitride and silicon carbide are emerging as more efficient substitutes for traditional silicon due to their higher thermal conductivity, faster electron mobility and superior performance. Lead-free solders and halogen-free flame retardants are being used as more eco-friendly dielectric chip materials and substitutes for hazardous dopants, reducing the toxicity of semiconductor devices. Techniques like atomic layer deposition (ALD) allow for precise control of material use, laying down atom-thick layers to reduce material waste during fabrication.

Waste reduction and recycling

Precise process control, together with the implementation of a circular economy model, is being put in place to reincorporate waste materials into the production process rather than simply discarding them. Advanced waste management techniques like plasma gasification and carbon capture are being utilized to treat and recycle waste.

Researchers are actively exploring ways to repurpose electronic waste (e-waste) and design longer-lasting components. Innovative methods to extend semiconductor product longevity through repair, refurbishment, and recycling practices are being explored to minimize electronic waste and curb the industry's ecological impact.

The path forward

Navigating the waters of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the semiconductor industry is witnessing an extraordinary shift. Sustainability, once an optional pursuit, has become an imperative. The rising demand for semiconductors underlines this trend, reminding us that growth brings with responsibility. We must cultivate an environmentally aware ethos in the face of continuous challenges.

Undeniably, the journey has its hurdles, but the strides we’ve made in the domains of energy efficiency, material innovation, waste reduction, and resource conservation are a beacon of positive change. By embracing this about-face and persisting in pushing the boundaries, we are carving a path towards a future that promises not only technological advancement but also environmental sustainability. This future holds the vision of a greener, more sustainable semiconductor industry.

About the author

Emily Main holds a J.D. in Compliance Law and a B.S. in Telecommunications. With her rich expertise in semiconductor technology and digital networking, she is well-positioned at the crossroads of technology, policy, and sustainability. Main has made extensive contributions to a wide array of publications, exploring technical challenges, industry trends, and their implications.

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