Page Two

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2004-04-19 Print this article Print

Two major manufacturers of semiconductor chips recently announced measures to reduce or eliminate lead from their products. Intel Corp. will seek a 95 percent reduction by next quarter, and National Semiconductor plans to be lead-free by years end.

Japans NEC Corp., including subsidiary NEC Electronics Corp., seeks lead-free production by March 2006. This deadline looks as if its aimed at compliance with the July 1, 2006, effective date of the European Unions Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, which will limit the use of lead and other materials in new electrical and electronic equipment.

Interpretation of that EU directive was muddied, however, by a committee meeting late last month. At that meeting, specific limitations on lead were discussed, and it was not clear at that time whether limits on lead as a percentage of weight would apply to components or to fully assembled items. EU member states require clarification before they can write their own enabling laws.

Mega-hurts: The environmental impact of building, disposing of PCs

Producing a 2-gram, 256K-bit RAM chip consumes:

  • 72 grams of chemicals
  • 1.2 kilograms of fossil fuels
  • 32 kilograms of water

    Discarding a PC requires finding safe disposal for:

  • 2 to 4 kilograms of lead (CRT monitor)
  • 6.3 kilograms of mixed plastics with other chemical content

    Current PC disposal practices affect the environment by:

  • Putting heavy metals into waste stream
  • Releasing dioxins and furans during incineration
  • Exposing workers to toner particles, tin-lead solder fumes, and chlorine and sulfur dioxide gases

    Source: Worldwatch Institute
  • Eliminating lead from electronic components is no small task, as noted by Melissa Grupen-Shemansky, director of packaging and interconnect technology at Agere Systems Inc., in Allentown, Pa. Lead-free solders, she said, in comments on the companys Web site, require higher temperatures—on the order of 500 F compared with roughly 420 F for conventional lead-containing solders.

    More troubling, Grupen-Shemansky said, is the tendency of lead-free solders to form crystalline "tin whiskers" that can grow long enough to create short circuits among components.

    In one test described by Grupen-Shemansky, whiskers bridged one-third of the way across a 200-micron gap between chip leads after only five weeks of storage at 140 F and 93 percent humidity. These are not typical indoor conditions but not unlike what might be found in a warehouse. If lead must be eliminated, she said, then other materials such as nickel may form an effective barrier against whisker formation.

    It seems likely to eWEEK Labs that this will become an area of competition among electronics manufacturers as regulators demand reductions in toxic material use.

    Accountability Downstream

    In addition to reducing toxic input to new equipment and thus, to the waste stream, regulators in the United States and Europe are exploring means to place accountability for downstream costs with builders and users of IT gear—rather than leaving them, as they are now, to be absorbed by municipalities and developing countries.

    Regulations are on the way

    Producers and consumers must be prepared to take on more of the electronic-waste burden

    The European Union Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which takes effect in August 2005:

  • Mandates collection, treatment, recycling and recovery
  • Makes manufacturers and resellers financially responsible for cleanup measures

    The National Computer Recycling Act under consideration in Congress:

  • Would establish an EPA-administered program of grants for equipment recycling programs
  • Would be funded by fee of up to $10 on each retail sale of a computer, monitor or laptop

    Source: eWEEK research
  • The EUs Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive will mandate, among other measures, the free return of old equipment when comparable new equipment is purchased after Aug. 13, 2005, with producers paying for subsequent "environmentally sound disposal."

    In the United States, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa Valley, Calif., proposes to avert proliferation of inconsistent state laws with a program administered by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) at the federal level. Issuing grants to governments and private organizations for computer recycling programs, Thompsons federal plan would be supported by fees of up to $10 collected on sales of individual computers, monitors and laptops.

    Said Thompson of his proposed bill: "We cant afford to continue endangering our health and our environment and packing our landfills by ignoring the problems created by computer waste."

    Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

    Check out eWEEKs Desktop & Notebook Center at for the latest news in desktop and notebook computing.

    Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developersÔÇÖ technical requirements on the companyÔÇÖs evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter companyÔÇÖs first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

    Submit a Comment

    Loading Comments...
    Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

    Rocket Fuel