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IBM recycles scrap silicon wafer into solar panels

Posted: 05 Nov 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:silicon wafer? solar panels? recycle scrap?

IBM has announced a new semiconductor wafer reclamation process pioneered at its Burlington, Vermont manufacturing facility. The new process uses a specialized pattern removal technique to repurpose scrap semiconductor wafers!thin discs of silicon material used to imprint patterns that make finished semiconductor chips for computers, mobile phones, video games, and other consumer electronics!to a form used to manufacture silicon-based solar panels.

Through this new reclamation process IBM is now able to more efficiently remove the intellectual property (IP) from the wafer surface, making these wafers available either for reuse in internal manufacturing calibration as "monitor wafers" or for sale to the solar cell industry, which must meet a growing demand for the same silicon material to produce photovoltaic cells for solar panels. IBM intends to provide details of the new process to the broader semiconductor manufacturing industry. It is currently in the process of being implemented at IBM's East Fishkill, New York plant as well.

Silicon shortage
"One of the challenges facing the solar industry is a severe shortage of silicon, which threatens to stall its rapid growth," said Charles Bai, chief financial officer of ReneSola, one of China's fastest growing solar energy companies. "This is why we have turned to reclaimed silicon materials sourced primarily from the semiconductor industry to supply the raw material our company needs to manufacture solar panels."

IBM and others in the industry use silicon wafers both as the starting material for manufacturing microelectronic products!from cellphones to computers to consumer electronics!and to monitor and control the myriad of steps in the manufacturing process. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, worldwide 250,000 wafers are started per day across the industry. IBM estimates that up to 3.3 percent of these started wafers are scrapped. In the course of the year, this amounts to approximately 3 million discarded wafers. Because the wafers contain IP, most cannot be sent to outside vendors to reclaim, so are crushed and sent to landfills, or melted down and resold.

"The engineering ingenuity that IBM has demonstrated in pioneering the wafer-to-solar panel program has generated countless other conservation initiatives in our manufacturing operations," said Mike Cadigan, general manager, IBM Semiconductor Solutions.

Smaller carbon footprint
The new wafer reclamation process produces monitor wafers from scrap product wafers!generating an overall energy savings of up to 90 percent because repurposing scrap means that IBM no longer has to procure the usual volume of net new wafers to meet manufacturing needs. When monitors wafers reach end of life, they are sold to the solar industry. Depending on how a specific solar cell manufacturer chooses to process a batch of reclaimed wafers, they could save between 30 and 90 percent of the energy that they would have needed if they had used a new silicon material source. These estimated energy savings translate into an overall reduction of the carbon footprint!the measure of the total amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service!for both the semiconductor and solar industries.

The program resulted in reduced spending on monitor wafers and increased efficiency in IBM's wafer reclaim program. For the IBM Burlington site, annual savings in 2006 was more than half-a-million dollars. The projected ongoing annual savings for 2007 is nearly $1.5 million and the one-time savings for reclaiming stockpiled wafers is estimated to be more than $1.5 million. Located 10 miles from Burlington in Essex Junction, Vermont, the campus employs some 5,600 people on 750 acres in more than 20 major buildings!with a primary focus on the development, manufacture and testing of semiconductors.

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