The global semiconductor industry is facing significant challenges in meeting international net-zero carbon emission targets by 2050. As experts note, the first milestone, set for 2025, involves achieving emissions reduction, which will be followed by a steady decline. A consortium, initiated by chip-industry association SEMI and including R&D organization imec, is striving to align chip manufacturers and their ecosystem with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree Celsius global warming target, necessitating global carbon emissions reaching net zero by 2050.
A Collaborative Effort
This consortium has brought together nearly 90 companies from SEMI’s extensive membership, with a commitment to reducing emissions. Mousumi Bhat, VP of Sustainability Programs at SEMI, lauded the companies’ willingness to collaborate and address sustainability issues. However, there are significant challenges ahead.
Emissions Reduction and Sustainability Goals
The semiconductor industry faces various targets to reduce emissions and adopt sustainable practices. By 2025, the industry aims to peak its emissions and ensure a steady decline, with a vision to reduce emissions to half of the 2019 level by 2030.
Transition to Renewable Energy
One of the primary concerns for the semiconductor industry is the transition to renewable energy sources for power. While this transition is relatively straightforward in some regions, it presents challenges in locations like islands, where setting up solar and wind power stations can be difficult. Fossil fuels are the primary energy source for fabs located in such regions.
Addressing Greenhouse Gases and Chemicals
The manufacturing process also involves the use of harmful greenhouse gases, which can pose environmental risks, especially in older fabs. While newer fabs have abatement systems to mitigate these risks, a tiny fraction of gases may still escape into the atmosphere, demanding further attention.
A Complex Supply Chain Challenge
The semiconductor supply chain is complex, with numerous chemicals and materials involved. Collaborating with chemical suppliers to develop greener processes without compromising chip performance is crucial. Some gases, such as sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), have a high global warming potential and need to be controlled more effectively.
The Challenge of Electronic Devices
The challenge extends beyond chip manufacturing, as the carbon emissions of devices using semiconductors, such as data centers and gaming equipment, are challenging to estimate. The “rebound effect” is a concern, where increasing device efficiency leads to higher demand and, subsequently, increased pollution. Electronics can contribute to green energy solutions, but their net environmental effect remains uncertain.
Optimizing Lithography Tools
EUV lithography tools, while energy-intensive, offer advantages by reducing the need for multiple patterning processes. However, the rebound effect becomes apparent when these tools are used to create chips with higher transistor densities. The industry needs to find a balance between energy consumption and chip performance.
Renewed Efforts and Commitments
Several major chipmakers, including Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), are renewing their efforts to address sustainability. They have set ambitious targets for adopting renewable energy sources and reducing emissions, demonstrating a commitment to achieving carbon reduction goals.
The semiconductor industry faces multifaceted challenges as it strives to align with international carbon emission targets. While collaboration and commitment are evident, the path to achieving sustainability remains complex, requiring innovative solutions and ongoing efforts from industry players.