IBM process turns waste silicon into cash, energy savings

Big Blue is looking a little green around the chips today. That's because IBM announced a semiconductor wafer reclamation process that removes chip circuitry with an abrasive pad and water, saving money and leaving the silicon in better shape for reuse in solar panels or other duties.

Enabling reuse is crucial because IBM estimates that approximately three million silicon wafers worldwide are scrapped each year by the semiconductor industry - representing a significant solar recycling opportunity. 3 million wafers for example:

* Stretch for 375 miles if placed end-to-end

* Cover 22.5 acres of area

* Weigh 187.5 tons

* Generate 13.5 megawatts of solar energy

· Produce 57 million kilowatt hours in solar panels (12-hour day x 365 days)

* Power 6,000 houses (9,500 kWh per year per house)

While reuse is a key result of the new process IBM said one of its primary chip development sites in Vermont, IBM Burlington, saved over half-a-million dollars in 2006 with the process. 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.Another key challenge in reclaiming silicon is protecting intellectual property information.

Through the new reclamation process, IBM says more efficiently remove the intellectual property from the wafer surface, making 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 offer the process to the broader semiconductor manufacturing industry.

Because the wafers contain intellectual property, most cannot be sent to outside vendors to reclaim and are crushed and sent to landfills, or melted down and resold. It is possible to salvage silicon, IBM said but many recyclers use acidic chemicals to erase the circuitry from wafers. IBM said it sandblasting its wafers to be sure no trade secrets on the wafers got out. But he new process is much more eco-friendly.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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