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Sustainable Semiconductor Manufacturing to Meet Climate Goals

Decarbonization has become an important task undertaken by most semiconductor companies worldwide, but that's easier said than done. Here are the steps semiconductor manufacturers and others can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

Domestic semiconductor manufacturing resiliency has become a top priority among most countries worldwide. Essential to almost any modern economy, semiconductors have become a necessity for most industries as technology continues its rapid integration into most market products. Growing demand for customization, connectivity, and “smart” devices has increased demand for electronic components in everything from coffee makers to pacemakers.  

As demand for electronic components rises, talks on the environmental impact of semiconductor manufacturing have only increased.  

Climate change, like domestic semiconductor manufacturing resiliency, has become a top priority for most governments globally. For many companies, reduction of fossil fuels, efforts to increase renewable energy technologies, and limitations of harmful environmental hazards have become essential aspects to align with overall business goals. The semiconductor industry is no exception.

The semiconductor industry greatly contributes to the overall percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. According to a Harvard Study, 75% of the overall total CO2 emissions are created through the process of semiconductor manufacturing itself. The more powerful the chip is the more significant the environmental impact. The continued proliferation of consumer devices and other technologies is incurring tremendous ecological debt regarding semiconductors' rapidly growing carbon footprint.  

More recently, semiconductor manufacturers are applying new sustainability practices to reduce emissions effectively and immediately. This is partly due to the rising number of countries setting ambitious goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Many chipmakers are setting out to achieve monumental goals toward sustainability, such as Intel’s commitment to using 100% renewable energies for its new production facility and TSMC’s intent to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050.  

These actions will be a remarkable step forward in reducing the environmental impact of the rapidly growing chip sector. Due to the toxic legacy of many semiconductors, more aggressive strategies might be necessary for the last stretch to reach net zero emissions.  

The Different Scopes of Semiconductor Sustainability Practices

The semiconductor manufacturing process emits significant portions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) yearly. The origin of these GHG emissions varies in intensity depending on where they are produced along the semiconductor production line. The GHGs emitted through most manufacturing processes are divided into different classifications called “scopes.”  

  • Scope 1: These are direct emissions from owned or controlled substances. According to a report by McKinsey, Scope 1 emissions “rise from process gases used during wafer etching, chamber cleaning, and other tasks. These gases, which include PFCs, HFCs, NF3, and N20, have high global-warming potential (GWP).”
  • Scope 2: These are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy or the electricity used to power the manufacturing process. Semiconductors require boatloads of electricity to produce and water to cool it down. Semiconductors need a litany of chemicals for their production, some of which are carcinogenic. Many have been removed due to stricter government laws, but others remain. These chemicals can seep into the ground and water sources for years.  
  • Scope 3: These emissions are harder for semiconductor manufacturers to control. These emissions directly relate to the use of products that contain semiconductors. According to McKinsey, these GHGs can vary significantly between use cases as “handheld devices with low power consumption during intermittent usage will have much lower emissions than data centers that operate 24/7.” Scope 3 is divided into two types: upstream and downstream emissions. Downstream refers to the devices that utilize the finished semiconductors and upstream refers to the suppliers that provide services, silicon, or other materials required in semiconductor manufacturing.  

Most sustainability efforts within the semiconductor industry revolve around Scope 1 and Scope 2. These strategies often align with an organization's operational targets. For example, Scope 1 emissions, which directly relate to tool-related energy consumption, can be mitigated by replacing tools with others with higher energy efficiency, smart systems, and more in-depth regulation. Scope 2 can be aided by utilizing renewable resources for electricity production, such as solar power, optimizing energy efficiency in manufacturing, and simply using LED fixtures within buildings.  

Of course, limiting Scope 2 emissions through renewable technologies is determined by the country’s access to sustainable electricity alternatives. If a country is entirely dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation, it will be much harder for semiconductor manufacturers to achieve better energy optimization that decreases overall GHG emissions.  

In total, Scope 1 and 2 emissions represent 65% of all emissions that are released through the semiconductor manufacturing process. Scope 3 upstream and downstream emissions comprise the rest and have provided challenges to semiconductor manufacturers as there is no one solution. Upstream Scope 3 emissions are broken up and could be spread across hundreds of suppliers and thousands more materials. According to a report by McKinsey, semiconductor companies can leverage new methodologies and automated baselining tools and implement cross-functional programs to provide support to improve overall upstream Scope 3 emissions. Still, it requires strict cooperative efforts with their suppliers.  

Lack of clarity and visibility hinder attempts at accurately calculating a company’s Scope 3 upstream emissions due to the various factors associated with individual processes or materials. In its report, McKinsey states that it can be challenging to quantify the emissions related to the actual nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) processes, as the material rates are high for GWP. However, fugitive emissions, meaning gases that escape unintentionally, related to the production of NF3 could be higher than the estimated emissions the NF3 processes knowingly create.  

A way to combat the amount of GHG emissions produced is by limiting the number of suppliers a semiconductor manufacturer works with.  

“While fabs may deal with hundreds of suppliers during procurement, our analysis revealed that about six to ten suppliers will account for half of emissions for chemicals, wafers, and gases,” reported McKinsey. “About three to five suppliers will account for over half of emissions for maintenance, spare parts, and capital expenditures for equipment upgrades. These patterns mean that semiconductor companies can address most Scope 3 upstream emissions by focusing on a relatively small group of suppliers.”

The first step should be to create a detailed and reliable baseline by examining procurement data for Tier 1 suppliers, ensuring exact quantities for materials are recorded. From there, semiconductor companies can establish emission baselines, identify their decoration levers, and work toward reducing emissions where a company should focus its efforts, whether waste reduction, implementing renewable energy, or optimizing materials, depending on a semiconductor company’s unique weak points.  

Increasing the use of logic and memory chips will require greater electricity and significantly advanced technology. With goals to meet net-zero emissions by the half of the century, semiconductor companies will have to kick it into high gear.

How Semiconductor Companies and Partners Can Reduce Emissions

No solution can completely solve the GHG emission problem since it is a multi-pronged challenge requiring different strategies. Data-driven insights and artificial intelligence are helping organizations create an emissions baseline to identify where to begin their transformation toward sustainability. Digital tools can help create comprehensive databases of raw material consumption and material-specific carbon emission factors collected from Tier 1 suppliers.  

From this information, semiconductor manufacturers can apply these statistics to their organizations and grapple with how to lower emissions.  

  • Alternative Chemicals: Carcinogenic chemicals have proven to be a problem throughout the semiconductor industry’s history. Silicon Valley is littered with Superfund sites or contaminated areas where toxic chemicals seep into the ground and other water sources, negatively affecting the environment and human health. Over the last several decades, the Environmental Protection Agency has been working alongside companies, such as Intel, to clean these areas while the industry, as a whole, has phased out some of the more dangerous substances. Continued transparency on the chemicals used within semiconductor manufacturing can help decrease this type of pollution.  
  • Implement Automation: When weighing artificial intelligence GHG emissions against human staff, AI wins out. Automating manufacturing optimizes processes by reducing the risk of human error, predicting and adjusting to design flaws, and increasing overall energy efficiency with algorithms that can monitor use. Many workflows are streamlined and simplified through automation, and improving factory sustainability through implementing automation is one of them. Both Intel and Samsung say that their operations have become nearly fully automated over the years.
  • Choose Suppliers Selectively: It should come as no surprise that some suppliers have a lower carbon footprint than others. In the beginning, as the industry continues to push toward overall sustainability, some suppliers have already taken significant steps in improving their GHG emissions. Rather than working alongside hundreds of suppliers with varying levels of carbon footprints, collaborating with a few suppliers to manage demand, address upstream Scope 3 materials to find alternates, and develop and adopt low-emission alternatives can help massively reduce Scope 3 GHG emissions.  
  • Reduce Waste: This will take a balancing act, determining trade-offs and weighing the potential risks against how much a specific solution will reduce overall GHG emissions. McKinsey says that, as an example, a single wafer goes through over 100 different chemical baths through processing. In the future, could fabs increase the number of wafers that go through these chemical baths simultaneously? Likewise, facilities can use predict analytics for maintenance on manufacturing line robots to reduce unneeded spare parts. Another path could be expanding recycling programs to reuse materials that still can meet industry standards.

Leadership commitment and involvement in sustainability are essential in efforts to drive decarbonization at all organizational levels, including technology, development, operations, and procurement. The focus on decarbonization should be improving workflows around chemicals, wafers, and gas, as they are the main contributors to a majority of GHG emissions, no matter the scope.  

Sourceability’s Tool Suite for a Smarter, Sustainable Supply Chain

Decarbonization efforts within the fragmented and complex electronic component supply chain will vary from company to company. Broad in scope, unity from stakeholders to design teams will be necessary as the semiconductor industry continues to push forward in reaching low or net-zero emission goals.  

The best way to begin decarbonization strategies is through accurate data collection to derive intelligent insights into current GHG emissions. Furthermore, automating workflows to optimize processes, reducing waste with precise calculations, and minimizing the amount of toxic chemicals utilized in manufacturing operations can help lessen a semiconductor company’s carbon footprint.  

Sourceability, an electronic components distributor with a comprehensive digital tool suite, aims to help improve sustainability along the electronic components supply chain. Datalynq, Sourceability’s premier market intelligence tool utilizes real-time market data and historical price trends to offer easy-to-understand scores into design risk or multi-source availability. This data comes straight from Sourcengine, Sourceability’s leading e-commerce site for electronic components.  

Similarly, Datalynq offers predictive analytics to help alert companies to supply chain disruptions or upcoming electronic component obsolescence. Proactive strategies can help reduce excess electronic component inventory, prevent unnecessary double ordering, and better commit to sustainable practices.  

Sourceability is ready to prioritize sustainability in 2024 and help semiconductor companies embrace a greener tomorrow.  

Author of article
Author
Kathryn Ackerman
Kathryn Ackerman is a senior copywriter with experience in the electronic components and tech industry. She works alongside Sourcengine's experts and engineers to provide the latest and most accurate updates within the electronic components industry.