Editorial Feature

The Path to A Sustainable Semiconductor Industry

Semiconductor chips are the building blocks of modern technology, powering everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. However, the manufacturing of these chips comes at a significant environmental cost. This has sparked debate around the sustainability of the semiconductor industry as it works to enable cleaner technologies while reducing its footprint.

Concept of green technology. green world icon on circuit board technology innovations. Environment Green Technology Computer Chip.

Image Credit: chayanuphol/Shutterstock.com

The Role of Semiconductor Chips in Advancing a Green and Sustainable Future

The "electrification of everything" concept has gained prominence, signifying the drive to power traditionally fossil-fuel-dependent devices with clean energy sources. Semiconductor chips are at the forefront of this transformation, serving as the foundation for modern electrical grid systems, including wind, solar, and battery storage solutions. For example, wind turbines incorporate approximately eight thousand silicon-based components to efficiently convert DC power into grid-compatible AC electricity while minimizing energy losses.

Experts anticipate a substantial growth rate, between 8% and 10% annually until 2027, in the utilization of semiconductor chips in renewable energy markets as the global demand for supporting power electronics rises in parallel with the expansion of clean energy initiatives.

In addition to their influence on renewable energy technologies, semiconductor chips are indispensable in developing electric vehicles, making them a vital element in the shift toward greener transportation options. On average, electric cars are equipped with approximately 2,000 semiconductor chips, which function as the nervous system of these vehicles, enabling advanced control systems and significantly enhancing their safety, performance, and environmental sustainability.

The logistics and supply chain industries are embracing semiconductor-dependent solutions such as robotics and autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) in warehouses to reduce their carbon footprint. With the incorporation of sensor networks within these facilities, there is an enhanced ability to monitor asset movement, all of which rely on semiconductor-based systems.

Furthermore, in the manufacturing sector, the silicon-dependent Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) drives transformation across entire industries, delivering superior productivity, cost-efficiency, and reduced time-to-value. Smarter electric tools boost productivity, optimize energy consumption, and enhance worker safety through improved sensing and tracking capabilities.

Overall, semiconductor chips play a fundamental role in advancing clean energy technologies, enabling efficient harnessing, conversion, transmission, and storage of renewable energy while driving electrification across industries and improving energy efficiency, making them indispensable for a cleaner and more sustainable future.

The Resource-Intensive Manufacturing Process

On the flip side, semiconductor chip production has a significant environmental impact. Semiconductor chip fabrication facilities (fabs) are highly complex and energy-intensive facilities where producing a single chip involves hundreds of steps, demanding significant energy, water, chemicals, and raw materials. These processes also involve greenhouse gases like perfluorocarbons and hazardous chemicals, which can pollute the environment if not properly managed.

A typical fab can use over 5 million gallons of water per day and consume 100 megawatt-hours of electricity per hour (upcoming 3nm chips would require 7.7 billion kilowatt-hours of power per year), driven by cleanroom operations, lithography machines, ion implanters, and climate control systems. For example, in 2020, TSMC emitted approximately 15 million tons of carbon and used 193,000 tons of water daily, equating to 70 billion liters annually, exacerbating environmental challenges during Taiwan's recent droughts.

Critics argue that the substantial resource requirements and emissions associated with chip fabrication are environmentally harmful and unsustainable, necessitating more than incremental improvements.

Silicon Dies are being Attached to Substrate by Pick and Place Machine on Semiconductor Factory.

Image Credit: IM Imagery/Shutterstock.com

In response, chip manufacturers have made efforts to enhance sustainability. TSMC pledged to reduce water usage per chip wafer by 30%, adopted cleaner production systems, transitioned to renewable energy, and worked to phase out potent greenhouse gases used in manufacturing. Additionally, Dell has taken a sustainable approach by repurposing wastewater from chip manufacturing for landscape irrigation at its Xiamen, China facility.

Beyond manufacturing, sourcing raw materials for semiconductors raises sustainability concerns due to the scarcity of resources like high-purity silicon, gallium, tungsten, and tantalum. As global reserves deplete, obtaining these materials economically becomes challenging. However, continuous research efforts are exploring alternatives to these materials.

For instance, recently, MIT researchers demonstrated the potential of cubic boron arsenide as a semiconductor material. Its exceptional properties, including high electron and hole mobility and outstanding thermal conductivity, have led researchers to deem it the best semiconductor material ever discovered. This discovery marks a significant advancement in semiconductor materials, indicating the possibility of more sustainable alternatives.

Navigating the Semiconductor Paradox

Semiconductor chips present an environmental paradox; their manufacturing enables green economic progress yet causes environmental concerns. Navigating this paradox requires holistic solutions across policy, innovation, business strategy and multi-sector collaboration.

Chip manufacturers must continue improving efficiency, reducing waste, and investing in green technologies for chip production. Policymakers can support R&D and initiatives to develop greener semiconductors. At the same time, designers can create application-specific chips optimized for efficiency.

This journey towards sustainability in the semiconductor industry is complex, yet it may serve as a vital prerequisite for addressing broader global environmental goals. As chip ubiquity and demand soar, the environmental stakes rise, making it imperative to harmonize this crucial industry with sustainability principles through an integrated approach that merges ethics, economics, and environmentalism.

More on this topic: Where Do Semiconductors Fit Into the Energy Crisis?

References and Further Reading

Harrington, Elise, Sairaj Dhople, Xiaojia Wang, Jungwon Choi, and Steven Koester. Sustainability for Semiconductors. Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 1 (Fall 2022): 42–43. Available at: https://issues.org/sustainability-semiconductors-harrington-dhople-wang-choi-koester/

Jones Lang LaSalle IP Inc. (2023). How semiconductor firms are chipping in on sustainability. [Online]. Available at: https://www.us.jll.com/en/trends-and-insights/cities/how-semiconductor-firms-are-chipping-in-on-sustainability

Kalle Ylä-Jarkko. (2023). Sustainability In the Semiconductor Industry: The Power of AI and Machine Learning. [Online]. Available at: https://elisaindustriq.com/blog-semiconductor-sustainability-in-the-semiconductor-industry/

Lippett, M. (2023). Semiconductor Sustainability: COP27 And the Potential of Chips to Save Energy. [Online]. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2023/02/03/semiconductor-sustainability-cop27-and-the-potential-of-chips-to-save-energy/?sh=2a8853c03aa7

Marwala, T. (2023). Semiconductor Chips for Sustainable Development. [Online]. Available at: https://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:9267/UNU-TB_2-2023_Semiconductor-Chips-for-SD.pdf

Favino, C. (2022). The Role of Semiconductors in the Renewable Energy Transition. [Online]. Available at: https://earth.org/semiconductors/

Matta, M. (2023). The Future of Renewable Energy Is Built on Semiconductors. [Online]. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinessdevelopmentcouncil/2023/09/08/the-future-of-renewable-energy-is-built-on-semiconductors/?sh=572413f116df

Pandey, M. (2023). Exploring the connection between semiconductor manufacturing and climate change [Online]. Available at: https://intlbm.com/2023/08/18/exploring-the-connection-between-semiconductor-manufacturing-and-climate-change/

Romero, C. (2023). Sustainability in Semiconductor Industry: Towards Greener Chip Production. [Online]. Available at: https://www.mrlcg.com/latest-media/sustainability-in-semiconductor-industry-towards-greener-chip-production-300690/

Shin, J., Gamage, G. A., Ding, Z., Chen, K., Tian, F., Qian, X., ... & Chen, G. (2022). High ambipolar mobility in cubic boron arsenide. Science, 377(6604), 437-440. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abn4290

White, S. (2023). The Environmental Impact of Using Plastic to Make Microchips. [Online]. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2023/04/19/the-environmental-impact-of-using-plastic-to-make-microchips/?sh=66e3c8ae1750

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Owais Ali

Written by

Owais Ali

NEBOSH certified Mechanical Engineer with 3 years of experience as a technical writer and editor. Owais is interested in occupational health and safety, computer hardware, industrial and mobile robotics. During his academic career, Owais worked on several research projects regarding mobile robots, notably the Autonomous Fire Fighting Mobile Robot. The designed mobile robot could navigate, detect and extinguish fire autonomously. Arduino Uno was used as the microcontroller to control the flame sensors' input and output of the flame extinguisher. Apart from his professional life, Owais is an avid book reader and a huge computer technology enthusiast and likes to keep himself updated regarding developments in the computer industry.

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Comments

  1. Ted Smith Ted Smith United States says:

    This article raises an important fundamental question: How do we support advanced semiconductor manufacturing without undermining advanced environmental and health protections for workers and communities?
    I've been working to encourage and promote sustainable electronics for over 40 years in Silicon Valley and around the world, first as Founder of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and more recently as Coordinator of International Campaign for Responsible Technology. I am very familiar with the stories of environmental and occupational health troubles identified in this story (superfund sites, birth defects, air and water pollution) and have worked with many others to try to prevent future hazards as the chip industry returns to the U.S. One of the fundamental challenges is that the industry that the industry moves so fast as it strives to achieve the Moore's Law goal of each new generation (@ 2 years) is twice as fast and twice as small as it's predecessor. As the industry experts in charge of protecting chip workers and the surrounding communities have noted, there is never enough time to adequately test and protect people and the environment from all of the new chemicals that constantly churn through the production processes. The speeding up of time that the industry leaders insist on works against the protections necessary to prevent harm.  We repeatedly hear industry officials say the problems that are identified are things of the past, and that this new generation of tecnhology does not have those problems.  The reality is that by the time that government catches up with the "collateral damages", the industry has moved on to the next generation which then creates new problems.

    In the current context where the CHIPs act is offering over $50 billion of subsidies with no performance requirements to prevent harm to workers and communities,  there is now a concerted push to neuter the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) in the name of shortening the permitting process in order to speed up the production schedule.  As the article points out, NEPA is one of the few national laws designed to promote public participation which is exactly what we need to assure, but if industry gets its way, the public will be largely cut out from the national protections.  Workers and residents would still have access to state laws and regulations,  which in some states are equivalent or stronger than the federal laws, but several of the proposed new chip plants are proposed in "low regulaton" states such as Arizona (TSMC), Texas (Samsung) and Ohio (Intel).  There is an urgent need to better reconcile the industry's need for speed with the needs of workers and communities to get the kinds of protections that they need.   Gutting NEPA as the solution is not only crude, it is certain to perpetuate the hazardous cycle that has so tarnished the image of the "clean industry' industry in the past. 

    Ted Smith
    San Jose CA

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of AZoNano.com.

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