On Tuesday, International Business Machines reported that it had developed a process to recycle discarded computer-chip wafers into solar panels. The good news, IBM can now recycle a percentage of the some three million silicon wafers used to build computer chips that have been discarded annually in the past. The major benefit from recycling this waste product is that 13.5 megawatts of power can now be generated from the solar panels or enough power to supply roughly 6,000 homes! The use of silicon in the semiconductor industry is in the form of imprinted patterns on silicon wafers in order to build the chips used in our electronic devices. The scrap wafers that have been etched with patterns that companies consider intellectual property are most often crushed and discarded in landfills.
The newly developed recycling process uses the existing wafer-polishing equipment to erase the patterns, said Thom Jagielski, the environmental manager at IBM that developed the technique. He said that this allows the wafers to be reused internally for equipment testing purposes and then can alternatively be sold to solar panel manufacturers. “It’s a simple process but it really returns benefits on so many different levels,” Jagielski said. “Not only do we reduce our overall use of silicon, but then to be able to create a raw material for the solar panel industry is kind of a good story all the way around.”
With silicon being the limiting factor for growth in the solar industry, this is a smart solution to help curb the scare supply of silicon in the future. With the solar industry growing at an alarming 30-40 percent each year the demands for silicon are rising rapidly and the supply is on a short leash. This is why the solar industry is fixing its eye on reclaimed silicon materials sourced primarily from the semiconductor industry. IBM intends to implement the silicon reclamation technology by the second quarter of next year at its two U.S. chip plants