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Turning waste wafers into solar energy

enero 27, 2020

IBM received the 2007 Most Valuable Pollution Prevention Award from the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR) for an innovative semiconductor recovery process that was first launched at its Burlington, Vermont facility.

The new process uses a microcircuit removal technique that allows you to convert waste semiconductor wafers into a form that can be used to produce the components of silicon-based solar panels. “Big Blue” makes the details of this new process available to operators in the sector, which reduces production waste and provides a source of new raw material stocks.

Information Technology operators use silicon wafers both as a base material for the manufacture of microelectronics products – from cell phones to computers, to consumer electronics – and to monitor and control the myriad of stages in the production process. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, 250,000 wafers per day are produced worldwide. According to IBM estimates, up to 3.3 percent of these wafers are discarded due to manufacturing defects. During the year, this percentage corresponds to about three million wafers eliminated. Since the wafers contain patented microcircuits, most of them cannot be sent to external suppliers for recovery, therefore usually the wafers are destroyed and sent to landfills or melted and resold. In addition, many thousands of silicon wafers are discarded from production every year or can no longer be used for process control because they are too thin or otherwise damaged to be usable.

Thanks to this new recovery process, microprocessor manufacturers are now able to more efficiently remove intellectual property elements from the surface of the wafers, thus making them available for re-use in internal process control or for sale to the cell sector. solar panels, which must meet a growing demand for the same silicon material to produce photovoltaic cells for the panels. The new wafer recycling and recovery process reduces the 21 energy-intensive stages typical of other recovery methods to 5-12 stages. Since the application of the new wafer recycling process reduces the number of energy-consuming phases, the so-called "carbon footprint" (a unit of measurement of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases emitted in the over the entire life cycle of a product or service) represented by monitoring wafers can be reduced by 30% -75%.

The program translates into a reduction in spending on monitoring wafers and an increase in efficiency in the wafer recovery program. For IBM's Burlington location, annual savings in 2006 exceeded half a million dollars. According to the projections, annual savings for 2007 are approximately $ 1.5 million, while one-off savings for the recovery of accumulated wafers are estimated to exceed $ 1.5 million. Therefore, the wafer recycling strategy is not limited to significantly reducing the carbon dioxide emissions of the production process, but also provides raw materials for the exploitation of solar energy, a truly inexhaustible resource.

(By Mauro Notarianni)

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