IBM Looks to Scrub Its Chips Clean

Scrubbed silicon wafers are sold for solar panels or reused as test wafers to calibrate the assembly line.

IBM is scrubbing clean the silicon wafers its uses to manufacture microprocessors, recycling the silicon to reuse in its fabs or sold for solar panels.

IBM began the recycling program Oct. 30 at its manufacturing facility in Essex Junction, Vt., where it is estimated to save $1.5 million in production costs in 2007 alone, IBM said. It will expand the program to its East Fishkill, N.Y., facility by the first quarter of 2008.

The recycling process looks to extend the life of those silicon wafers that contain imperfections within the microprocessors. Normally, these damaged wafers are destroyed and discarded to preserve the intellectual property left behind when the patented circuitry is imprinted on the processors. IBMs recycling process completely wipes the circuitry from the processors, returning a blank silicon wafer that can be reused, said Eric White, an advisory scientist with IBM.


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IBM tried various methods including a sandblasting technique that was costly and used a good deal of energy and several chemical strips before White and a research team came upon an abrasive material, which IBM declined to identify, that, when mixed with water, stripped the wafers clean. "Its a very fast process and inexpensive," he said. "Theres no toxic waste, and we believe its something everyone can use."

The silicon is then sold for solar panels or reused as test wafers or monitors that can be used to check the microprocessor assembly line for various faults. White estimates that this will cut down IBMs purchases of monitor wafers by about 25 percent.

IBM makes its own chips for servers, such as its Power processor, and other chips for a variety of products such as game consoles and cell phones. It also helped co-develop processors for other vendors, such as Advanced Micro Devices.

IBMs competitors in the space have walked a similar path to save cash and cut pollution. Intels new 45-nanometer Fab in Arizona recycles 70 percent of the water used in production and cut greenhouse gas emissions.


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