Imec launches sustainable semiconductor program

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Imec, a semiconductor research accelerator in Leuven, Belgium, announces the first results of its Sustainable Semiconductor Technologies and Systems (SSTS) research program, which aims to reduce the carbon footprint of the semiconductor industry. Early entrants include major systems companies such as Apple and Microsoft and semiconductor vendors such as ASM, ASML, Kurita, Screen and Tokyo Electron.

Today, the semiconductor industry plays a minor role in global CO2 emissions. But the industry is facing unprecedented demand for new chips. A major concern is that growing demand could increase the relative share of the semiconductor industry’s carbon emissions, especially as other industries reduce their carbon impact.

The production of semiconductors requires large amounts of energy and water and can generate hazardous waste. In the short term, the SSTS effort will help companies understand and optimize their systems to minimize carbon emissions. Ultimately, better statistics can also help reduce other problems caused by semiconductor manufacturing.

A growing concern in the semiconductor industry

Researchers have shown that nearly 75% of a mobile device’s carbon footprint comes from manufacturing and half of this comes from its chips. The SSTS team has already built a virtual factory to simulate the environmental impact of future logic and memory devices.

The SSTS team is also starting to enrich and simulate data with and check the representativeness of the models used. Lars-Åke Ragnarsson, program director at SSTS, told VentureBeat that the first efforts are prototypes of simulated fabs rather than actual digital twins. However, the hope is that future efforts will allow companies to weave these models into digital twins to help optimize ongoing manufacturing operations.

He emphasized the importance of sharing emissions data across the entire production cycle and all steps in the supply chain. Developing metrics gives everyone a better idea of ​​which actions can improve or reduce sustainability. Today, for example, some companies can quantify the carbon footprint per chip, while others do it per product per dollar. Uniform standards will provide an apples to apples comparison based on several adjustments.

Some different sources of carbon emissions include electricity consumption, direct emissions, and water consumption. The group is already showing the potential impact of higher efficiency pumps and hydrogen recovery. Later, they hope to identify high-impact processes for logic and memory technologies where manufacturers should focus their efforts. They also want to develop guidelines for manufacturers, fabricators, equipment suppliers and material suppliers that can help minimize the CO2 impact.

Early start

The project is still in its infancy. Currently, chip production only accounts for about 0.1% of global carbon emissions. But the concern is that without a new approach, they could triple by 2030 and have a disproportionate impact on carbon emissions as other industries shrink their carbon footprints. “The goal should be to say at 0.1%,” Ragnarsson said.

They plan to add other environmental aspects, such as material costs, later on. Other tools will make it easier to investigate how new manufacturing and computing techniques such as molecular computing can influence the climate footprint. They also plan to develop tools to share these findings and broader lifecycle data with other stakeholders, such as politicians and citizens.

“We have to work as a team,” Ragnarsson said. “This is not competitive. To make this happen, we have to work together.”

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