Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Brilliant - Silicon Recycling

First off, I'll say that this technology is brilliant:

IBM today announced an innovative new semiconductor wafer reclamation process... The new process uses a specialized pattern removal technique to re-purpose 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. The new process was recently awarded the “2007 Most Valuable Pollution Prevention Award” from The National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR).

If you're unsure, this is a GREAT, GREAT, GREAT win for solar technology. As the article states, solar technology is being held back by a shortage of materials - in specific, silicon. Nothing worse than trying to bring greentech to the people and having it be too expensive because of materials. Briefly:
"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.

IBM and others in the industry use silicon wafers both as the starting material for manufacturing microelectronic products 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% of these started wafers are scrapped. In the course of the year, this amounts to approximately three million discarded wafers. Because the wafers contain intellectual property, most can not be sent to outside vendors to reclaim so are crushed and sent to landfills, or melted down and resold.

Awesome, it's win-win... but I still wonder...Why did IBM put time and effort into this project? There are three reasons I can immediately come up with

1) The did it out of the goodness of their hearts

Though this is, IMHO, fantastic in the way that the chances of it being true fall somewhere between "slim" and "zip." Which, as you heard in Dumb and Dumber, still means there is a chance. If I started an environmental company, you better believe I would put "green" and "profit" as equal in priority. In fact, I wouldn't start a business I believed to be unsustainable. So, yes, IBM could have had an epiphany. More likely, however...

2) They did it to APPEAR to have good, green hearts

Is that wrong? No. It's predictable, to be sure, but the outcome is the same in the end. Or is it?

Though this is, as I mentioned, a big win for solar power regardless of the motivation. But if this is a marketing opportunity more than anything else, it leaves the possibility of it going away quickly when the benefits don't outweigh the costs for IBM alone. Lets say the recycling process gets a little expensive or they have to hire more people to take care of the process or any number of different things that could happen. Suddenly, appearing green is no longer a priority and the process slows to a halt. The press release already went out so the impact was already felt. Is anyone going to track and report on it if they decide to stop? No one... BUT ME!

Which brings me to the last reason this process might have been created...

3)It makes them money

Between 2 and 3, it's hard to say which one is more likely and, in the end, it's all the same thing (green image leads to more sales). In fact, it ends up being both:
IBM’s commitment to environmental conservation blah blah blah blah blah blah

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.

This further proves my (and others') theory on the environment:

things will not change until it becomes profitable for them to do so

Keep in mind I am not saying ANYTHING against IBM. This is a great move on their part and I would not expect an industry giant to do anything but do as it has done in the past. If this is an indication of corporate altruism, then all the better. An environmental win is a win.
The new wafer reclamation process produces monitor wafers from scrap product wafers - generating an overall energy savings of up to 90% 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 - 90% of the energy that they would have needed if they'd 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 (CO2) and other greenhouse gases emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service -- for both the Semiconductor and Solar industries.

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