Semiconductors have become invaluable in our increasingly tech-driven world, and the industry continues to grow. Semiconductor unit shipments are expected to exceed 1 trillion units by 2018, compared to about 700 billion units in 2010 and fewer than 400 billion units in 2000.
As with any industry experiencing tremendous growth, there is a concern that the semiconductor industry maintains its safety standards and minimizes harm to the environment. In other words, the more semiconductors produced, the greater the need for vigorous safety and environmental management.
Safer Protective Equipment
At first glance, the semiconductor industry looks sterile. Between the clean rooms and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, gowns and respirators, conditions at chip-making plants have been described as cleaner than the average hospital.
It also is not a particularly dangerous industry, at least when it comes to experiencing workplace illnesses and injuries. A Vanderbilt University study that examined more than 100,000 semiconductor industry workers over a five-year period found no evidence of increased mortality rates from all causes or from cancers.
Still, the industry could do a better job of protecting its employees, considering the number of potentially dangerous substances they deal with daily.
While the protective suits worn by workers in the semiconductor industry are designed to protect the integrity of the semiconductor and its components, they also protect the workers from exposure to potential hazardous materials. Additional PPE – such as hearing protection, gloves and respirators – should be chosen with consideration for the job tasks performed by the workers.
For example, workers in the semiconductor industry need hand protection that allows for dexterity as well as protection from substances found in the parts they are manufacturing. Workers who are near heat or open flame should wear fire-retardant clothing. Eye protection is required for a number of job tasks, and should meet the appropriate ANSI and OSHA standards.
Electrostatic discharge can be extremely hazardous when working with semiconductors and related components. In an effort to combat this, the team with Precision Polymer Engineering has devised a dissipative elastomer which facilitates a slow, controlled release of any unwanted electrical charges.
Following these simple guidelines can go a long way toward ensuring a safe work environment for semiconductor industry employees.
Limited Environmental Factors
The use of semiconductors of all kinds drives today’s modern world, but the industry clearly has its environmental risks.
According to one study, a facility that produces semiconductors on six-inch wafers uses 240 thousand kilowatt hours of electricity and 2 million gallons of water each day. This can be a particularly significant problem for manufacturers on the West Coast or in desert areas such as New Mexico, where water is a relatively scarce resource.
Semiconductor facilities are good for the economy because they drive a large and essential industry, but they also can hurt local businesses such as farms or ranches as they compete for water consumption.
In worst-case scenarios, a semiconductor facility may leak toxic solvents into the ground, which potentially could lead to contaminated drinking water and birth defects.
The industry previously has addressed industry concerns and committed to initiatives such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Still, more can be done to reduce the industry's impact on the environment.
In fact, the Semiconductor Industry Association has taken a highly proactive stance toward bolstering safety throughout the entire semiconductor manufacturing process. The organization already has taken several steps toward reducing workers’ exposure to hazardous materials, going so far as to team up with experts from the World Semiconductor Council to greatly reduce or eliminate such materials. Thanks to an initiative that began in 2006, the SIA and WSC have nearly eliminated hazardous perfluoroctyl sulfonates compounds.
Improved Recycling System
Another environmental issue facing the semiconductor industry is old, unwanted or unused equipment.
Think of how many systems such as old computers, pagers, cell phones and TVs with semiconductors you have gone through over the years. These device life cycles only get shorter as newer and better technology makes itself available.
Millions of devices, from computers to tablets to mobile phones, are sold in the United States each year, and eventually they all will be discarded. This can put a strain on landfills. Even more concerning are the amounts of heavy metals, lead and other potentially hazardous substances that are discarded, which could pose a threat to the environment.
Despite the growing problem of electronic waste, sometimes referred to as e-waste, there are some efforts to divert this unwanted waste from our landfills. Similar to other types of waste diversion initiatives, many communities and companies are now offering e-waste recycling and disposal services.
To that extent, the state of New York recently made it illegal for consumers to throw their unwanted computers, tablets and phones in the trash. Serving as the final phase of the state's electronic recycling initiative, which started in 2010, the new law officially took effect at the beginning of 2015. Thanks to the law, as well as the state's general stance toward e-waste, New York has already diverted nearly 320 million pounds of electronic equipment from their landfills since 2013.
If there were an easy way to recycle discarded electronics and their semiconductors, a plan would be in place already. The industry isn't there yet, but if it can to get to a point where semiconductors are more recyclable, that shift would benefit both the industry and the communities that use its products.
Looking Toward the Future
If the past 10 years are any indication, the semiconductor industry should continue to boom for the foreseeable future. However, with increased success comes increased scrutiny.
Two companies – Intel and Samsung – account for more than a quarter of semiconductor revenues. Typically, when industry leaders are at the forefront of new guidelines and regulations, the rest of the industry will follow, and hopefully that will be the case here.
Intel already has proven their dedication to the cause. Apart from their current status as the largest U.S.-based purchaser of green energy, they also host a number of large-scale solar power installations in multiple locations. Moreover, Intel's water conservation initiative has saved nearly 3 billion gallons of freshwater since the program's inception 10 years ago, setting an example for the rest of the industry.
Megan Ray Nichols is a science writer and the editor of Schooled By Science. Megan enjoys reading and writing in a variety of scientific fields. Follow her on twitter @nicholsrmegan or subscribe to her blog.