IBM Turns Scrap Semiconductor Wafers Into Silicon For Solar Industry

by | Oct 31, 2007

IBM is repurposing 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 company announced.

Through this new reclamation process, IBM says it is able to more efficiently remove the intellectual property 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 use at IBM’s Burlington Vermont facility and in the process of being implemented at IBM’s East Fishkill New York semiconductor fabrication plant.

“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.”

According to IBM, 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 – 90 percent 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 CO2 and other greenhouse gases emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service – for both the Semiconductor and Solar industries.

For the IBM Burlington site, the annual savings in 2006 were more than $500,000. 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.

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