Why the road to sustainability starts with pollution prevention

At Intel, manufacturing is driven by Moore’s Law, which is that the number of transistors in a chip doubles every two years. To keep up with Moore’s Law, a new manufacturing process is developed every two years with smaller feature sizes, lower energy consumption, and greater computing capability.

Making a semiconductor has hundreds of individual steps, each step may be researched separately and then the different steps are integrated into a manufacturing process in the final two years before high volume manufacturing begins. The processes are so complicated and interactions between steps so sophisticated that once the technology has been developed it is copied exactly in high volume manufacturing. 

Long research and development cycles produce semiconductor manufacturing processes that have a relatively short life, so R&D has to be engaged in pollution prevention. Of the thousands of research ideas that are investigated, relatively few make it into actual manufacturing technology. Focusing too early in research results in lots of time being wasted on ideas that will not make it into a production process; on the other hand, once a process goes to high volume manufacturing, it is too late to change. At Intel, we have found the sweet spot is getting deeply engaged one to three years before high volume manufacturing begins.

Intel’s environmental professionals define the priorities and environmental performance targets and then the engineers who develop the manufacturing process are responsible for achieving the performance. The same development engineers responsible for pushing the bounds of physics are also responsible for pollution prevention. This approach helps promote the most effective integrated solutions.

For example, without incentive, development engineers may be resistant to optimize a material to produce less waste, or change materials to ones that are less toxic; however, if the alternative is that they will have to develop a complicated waste treatment system they may be actively looking for these alternative approaches. Engagement at this stage has been used to reduce the use of perfluorinated compounds as shown in the chart below.  These materials are essential in semiconductor manufacturing but have very high global warming potentials.

There is a huge need to be able to get good information into the hands of the people who can use it. The Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange is made up of eight pollution prevention centers around the country that collaborate on delivering information services and technical assistance to businesses to help them operate more efficiently, contributing to a healthier environment and a stronger bottom line. Intel works closely with the center headquartered in Seattle and operating in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska -- the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center.

PPRC provides affordable technical assistance, particularly to small and medium-sized businesses throughout the region. As an example, since 2007, PPRC has provided outreach technical assistance to automotive and landscape businesses in Washington County, Ore., through the EcoBiz certification program. Among 24 firms interviewed, changes in business practices as a result of the certification yielded outcomes such as: 16.5 million gallons of water use reduced; 291,000 gallons of waste water to storm drains avoided; 81,000 pounds of landfill waste eliminated; and hazardous waste reductions including 70 grams of mercury; 1,483 pounds of zinc; and 253 pounds of lead. Additionally, the program helped businesses reduce air emissions, lower energy use, and improve worker safety. Firms also reported lower costs and additional sales.

Tremendous strides have been made in preventing pollution, but with the new business tools, new materials, and new approaches there will continue to be important new opportunities to reduce waste, use fewer resources, and find more efficient and less toxic solutions. Pollution prevention is an important element of becoming more sustainable.

Photo of woman standing in polluted cityscape via Shutterstock.com.