Supply Chain Collaboration Key To Making Chip Industry More Sustainable

Sustainability means more than simply switching to renewable energy sources.


Coming in the wake of the COP27, the Smart and Green Manufacturing Summit at SEMICON Europa 2022 (Munich, 15-17 November) had a timely focus on the semiconductor industry’s contribution to meeting the United Nations’ target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

However, in an industry as large and valuable as semiconductors, social as well as environmental impacts can take many forms, as can the initiatives to improve the industry’s sustainability performance. Thus, the themes presented at the summit ranged widely, including on the topic of what sustainability means to this industry, and which challenges are most important to tackle. Expert speakers also examined the current state of the semiconductor industry’s performance on sustainable development and shared a vision of the future, one wherein the industry is setting an example, not catching up.

Setting the right sustainability targets

The summit provided an opportunity for some of the industry’s biggest players, such as Intel and Samsung, to outline their policies on environmental and social governance. Mousumi Bhat, Vice President of Sustainability Programs at SEMI, sought first however to put the very concept of sustainability in the spotlight. As she pointed out, semiconductors are an enabler for almost every technology that will help to solve climate change and other environmental problems. However, she cautioned that “semiconductors risk also being part of the problem. A forecast compound annual growth rate of 8% in the years to 2030 gets the industry to $1.3 trillion USD in annual revenues. This growth will require many more fabs.” This is a problem, as a large fab can consume 100MW in electricity and between two and four million gallons of ultra-pure water per day.

Mousumi Bhat, Vice President of Sustainability Programs, SEMI

This means that there is a strong case for radical action to dramatically reduce the environmental impacts of the semiconductor supply chain – and the industry cannot hide from it. This was echoed by Anneclair Mohr, Managing Attorney for Business, Regulatory and Sustainability at Intel. “What we do is more important, and more noticed, than ever,” she said. On this, Mousumi Bhat made an impassioned call for a new approach to business, based on three priorities:

  • Business plans that take account of long-term socio-economic considerations
  • Purpose-driven leadership
  • Green skilling to build a workforce fit to perform environmental as well as economic functions

Bhat’s questions about what sustainability means in the semiconductor industry were reflected in the contributions from Intel and Samsung. Mohr described Intel’s commitment to its RISE (Responsible, Inclusive, Sustainable, Enabling) program. As part of this, Intel aims to be net zero in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across its operations by 2040. It has already started this process by sourcing electrical energy from renewable sources – it has more than 100 renewable energy installations at its manufacturing sites today.

Claire HyunJung Seo, Corporate Vice President, Samsung Electronics

However, given the forecast for rapid growth cited by Bhat, there is a sense that measuring sustainability performance should not be left to the discretion of individual companies. This point was made powerfully by Claire HyunJung Seo, Corporate Vice President of Samsung Electronics. She noted that sustainability goals are “a very important part of business management” at Samsung, covering issues of the environment, labor and human rights, corporate citizenship, and the supply chain.

Samsung Electronics’ environmental goals include to be net zero for carbon emissions by 2050. On the performance measurement, she called for the industry to come together to agree a new sustainability index appropriate to the semiconductor industry. Samsung, she said, would be using a new Semiconductor Environmental Performance Index (SEPI) to better and more transparently communicate with stakeholders.

Cedric Rolin, Program Manager, imec

This question has also attracted the interest of imec. Cedric Rolin, Manager of imec’s sustainability programs, introduced imec.netzero, its initiative to help semiconductor companies assess and improve their climate impact. As he pointed out, imec.netzero shows that the industry has a long way to go to match the requirement of the UN’s Paris Agreement to reduce GHG emissions by 50% by 2030. He commented, “at a forecast growth rate of 8%, and with no action to make the industry’s manufacturing operations more climate-friendly, GHG emissions will actually rise by a factor of four.”

Sustainability means more than a switch to renewable energy

Chris Jones, Environmental Solutions Business Development Manager at Edwards Vacuum, explained how climate impacts are generated across the semiconductor supply chain, which is – as he put it – an immensely complex system. On its own account, Edwards is taking impressive actions such as creating a roadmap to reduce the power consumption of its vacuum pumps by 50%. Overall, the effect of improved abatement across the industry would be far greater than any action by a single company, he noted.

Chris Jones, Environmental Solutions Business Development Manager, Edwards Vacuum

This point was echoed by Robert Wieland, Project Manager at the Fraunhofer Institute, who noted the trend of increasing concentrations of harmful fluorinated gases (F gases) such as NF3 in the atmosphere – pollution for which the semiconductor industry is partly responsible. Dr. Guy Davies, Director Business Development Global at DAS Environmental Expert GmbH, highlighted the importance of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), a family of chemicals widely used in fabs. A PFC such as CF4 has a global warming potential of 7,390 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2) and is long-lived in the atmosphere.

Dr. Davies said, “Getting the semiconductor supply chain to net zero is about much more than a switch to renewable sources of electricity to power fabs. In particular, any sustainability plan has to include almost total PFC destruction, and the adoption of alternatives to the use of PFCs.”

Dr. Guy Davies, Director Business Development Global, DAS Environmental Expert GmbH

Innovation reduces the environmental impact of semiconductor manufacturing

The summit gave plenty of evidence that the industry is grappling seriously with the issues of emissions, chemical pollution, and resource use. Robert Wieland, Project Manager at Fraunhofer Institute, described the development of Fluorine Argon Nitrogen (FAN), a gas mixture that can be used for etching and cleaning processes. It has a low global warming potential and a very short lifetime in the atmosphere. FAN can for instance replace CF4, a PFC, in hard mask etching, and can substantially reduce total fluorine use when replacing C2F6/O2 or SF6. He also highlighted the reductions in CO2 emissions which can be made by replacing high-temperature burning with washing in sub-fabs.

Robert Wieland, Project Manager, Fraunhofer Institute

Chemical abatement featured prominently in other speakers’ recommendations for improved environmental performance. Dr Adam Stover, Chief Technology Office of Centrotherm Clean Solutions, described research showing that the environmental harm of running abatement processes (the energy consumed and the water used, and the waste products generated) are typically far less than the environmental benefit of improved abatement performance. So while for instance CF4 is “incredibly hard to destroy,” he said, lifting the destruction rate from 90% to 95% by using a more intensive abatement process produces a clear gain in terms of global warming impact.

Dr. Adam Stover, Chief Technology Officer, centrotherm Clean Solutions

Andreas Neuber, Director Environmental Services at Applied Materials, added that this was characteristic of the task facing fab operators: Getting to net zero would be achieved “by solving many small or mid-sized problems, rather than a single very high-value problem,” he said. This puts into context the contribution from Jamie Potter, CEO of Flexciton, who introduced his company’s sophisticated fab process scheduling software. It enables fab operators to organize workloads to optimize for efficiency, yield, or even energy consumption. Potter explained that intelligent scheduling with Flexciton’s software can enable tools to be idled for longer periods to reduce a fab’s energy overhead.

Jamie Potter, Chief Executive Officer, Flexciton

New computing technology at the service of the semiconductor supply chain

While Applied Materials and others see plenty of scope in incremental improvements to processes, tools and chemical selections, Dr. Alessandro Curioni, Vice President of Research (Europe and Africa) at IBM, raised the possibility of dramatically accelerated innovation leading to big breakthroughs. This would be enabled by new waves of technology – artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing.

During his talk, Dr. Curioni remarked that “AI can accumulate total knowledge about a problem really fast, it can auto-generate hypotheses, and it can automate the synthesis and testing of new materials. In semiconductor fabrication, we need new, sustainable materials. Typically, materials discovery takes 10 years and $100 million USD. We need to cut the time to discovery by 90%.” Quantum computing will help achieve this ambition, he noted, adding further that “Quantum is real, it is here now, and it can do work in chemistry, physics and simulating nature that just cannot be done with classic computational technologies. The future will be quantum-centric supercomputing.”

Professor John Kelleher, an AI researcher at Technological University Dublin, sounded a note of caution, however. Today, AI is a very energy-hungry technology – and it is only getting worse. The computational effort required – and the power consumed – in training an AI model depends largely on the amount of data fed into it. A 2009 Google paper cited by Dr. Kelleher posited that “simple models trained on large amounts of data outperform more elaborate models based on less data.” As Dr. Kelleher said, “in AI, you can always get better by getting bigger.”

Dr. John Kelleher, Professor, Technological University Dublin

Yet AI running on advanced processor chips risks heating the planet itself. In Dr. Kelleher’s home country of Ireland, it is forecast that data centers will be using 30% of the nation’s electricity by 2028, and much of their workload will be AI-driven. He called for a shift in mentality in his field of AI to prioritize the optimization of AI models for low energy at acceptable accuracy, other than optimizing for accuracy alone.

The industry unites to solve a common problem

Across the wide range of solutions proposed to address the semiconductor supply chain’s sustainability problem, the speakers were united in their belief that it is an issue for the industry to address as one.

In pursuit of common solutions, SEMI is providing the industry with leadership, not least in its formation of the Semiconductor Climate Consortium, an initiative hailed by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who said in video footage shown to the summit, “Your plans are very inspiring, but you are at the easiest stage, and the hard work starts now.”

The consortium is an outstanding example of the kind of response called for by Stephan Raithel, COO Gas Treatment and General Manager US at DAS Environmental Experts GmbH, when he opened the summit: “We are privileged to be in the semiconductor industry, but it comes with an obligation: to make the world at least as good as today, or even better.”

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