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EarthShift Global, Aftan, Schaffer Team Up to Explore Reuse of Semiconductor Chips Under NIST Research Grant

Novel application of circular economy principles could reduce end-of-life impacts for wide range of e-waste; stakeholders all along supply chain will be consulted

Integrated circuit board

Semiconductor chips are critical elements in a vast range of products, and often a dominant factor in their life cycle impacts — largely because of electricity used during the chipmaking process. And with billions of electronic devices produced annually, similarly large numbers become obsolete and turn into electronic waste (e-waste).

To date, e-waste reclamation efforts have focused on retrieving small quantities of precious metals, but this requires destruction of the chips. Now, however, a more ambitious approach, the application of circular economy principles to the chips themselves, will be studied by a team led by EarthShift Global with funding from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Under consideration: harvesting and reuse of chips in their original form, an option that would continue to extract value from the energy used for the chips’ production and also reduce e-waste end-of-life impacts.

Under a 12-month NIST grant. EarthShift Global will collaborate with Dr. Lisa Peterson, president of Aftan Engineering, and Mark Schaffer, president of Schaffer Environmental LLC on a literature review and expert interviews to characterize current practices for disposal, recycling, and reuse, and “identify possible architectures for the transition towards a circular economy in [the] electronics sector with special attention to integrated circuits (ICs, or chips) end of life treatment.” These architectures will then be assessed using life cycle assessment (LCA) principles and their feasibility explored with stakeholders in the electronics and electronics end-of-life supply chains.

Schaffer holds a BS in Materials Science and Engineering and has worked in and with IT industry organizations including IBM, Dell, and Canon. He has served since 2008 as a consultant on environmental standards, supply chain management, and collaboration within the IT Industry.

Peterson, who served for many years as an IC designer and manufacturing engineer at AT&T Bell Labs and also holds BS and Masters degrees in Electrical Engineering, an MBA and a PhD in Environmental Engineering, notes that existing precious-metal recovery processes require substantial energy and water and generate toxic waste, while workers at e-waste disposal sites can be exposed to toxic elements.

Harvesting and reusing some ICs for another useful application before going to e-waste would require new types of chip industry cooperation, she says, but the potential benefits include lessening the overall life cycle impacts of ICs and products incorporating them — in particular end-of-life impact categories like climate change, water use, land use, cumulative energy demand, mineral resource scarcity, ecotoxicity, carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic human health, and perhaps even more.

“Obviously this is prior to any research or collaboration on the project; we will be very sensitive to listening to the industry players we interview, which may result in a different direction than we perceive at this moment,” adds Peterson.

“The success of any semiconductor reuse effort will depend on understanding and meeting the needs of stakeholders up and down the supply chain,” adds Lise Laurin, CEO of EarthShift Global and principal investigator for the project, and herself a semiconductor veteran with experience at Intel. “We will consider reuse models from outside the electronics industry. One example might be ’Certified pre-owned’ automobiles, which provide a higher level of consumer confidence and warranty coverage than a random used car. That type of branding is the sort of thing that could make the difference between adoption and rejection of the circular model.”

Schaffer observes that greater circularity resulting in a large enough supply of high-quality recovered semiconductors could also prompt adoption of new business models by companies that use chips in their products, or even the entry of new organizations into the manufacturing marketplace. He also points out that the broader chip industry is currently plagued by supply chain issues and lead times of over 100 weeks for some products. “Reused ICs may also be in demand if they can be acquired with shorter lead times,” he says.

Many of the challenges involved in reuse stem from the traditional electronics industry focus on rapid evolution to new generations of products. Chips are typically affixed onto circuit boards, and there’s potential for damage during disassembly. Moreover, the unknown condition of the systems involved will require a methodology for testing the chips, assessing their performance, and sorting them by grade (known as “binning”). And, Peterson adds, the harvested chips would need to be placed onto the tapes, reels, or carriers used on highly automated electronics production lines.

Reused ICs will need to be cheaper than new ones, so the cost of preparing them will have to be a fraction of the original manufacturing cost. And because semiconductor technology is constantly reducing chip size and energy consumption, standards will be needed to identify when it is actually worse for the environment to reuse a chip.

Chipmakers will also have business concerns, notes Peterson, including the potential for creation of an illicit marketplace in which reused chips are sold as new. “They may feel a loss of control of their product and will need ways to ensure that warranties and negative impact to reputation are avoided.” As an alternative, Schaffer added that companies in the industry may want to recover their own chips from their off-lease programs instead of an open market model.