Intel to cut 95% of lead used in CPUs

But industry's eco cred limited by fab emissions

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Intel has pledged to ship lead-free chips... well, almost lead-free chips during Q3.

In a bid to make its processors more environmentally friendly, the chip giant will remove all but five per cent of the lead it currently uses to construct processors and chipsets, Michael Garner, director of Intel's materials technology operation, said in Japan today.

"Lead-free is required for the future. This is the right time for this launch of the technology," he said.

The move comes in response to tightening regulations on the level of dangerous substances in consumers electronics products that sooner or later end up in landfill sites. Lead is used in the solder used to connect the processor die's terminals to the pin that link its ceramic packaging to the outside world.

Intel said it intends to work out how it can rid its packaging process of the remaining lead. It already ships lead-free Flash memory, and began doing so in 2002, having qualified its first lead-free Plastic Ball Grid Array package in 2001. The lead-tin solder previously used for connecting this package to the motherboard was replaced with a tin-silver-copper alloy.

Intel's Flip Chip Ball Grid Array package uses the same alloy. That remaining five per cent lead - roughly 0.02g of the stuff, says Intel - will be needed until it can demonstrate that a lead-free product meets the company's performance and reliability requirements.

While Intel's move make ensure less lead leaks into the outside world from finished processors, it has to be said that chip making remains one of the world's muckiest industrial processes. Intel and other chip makers work to strict environmental rules that seek to balance the pollution they cause with the benefits most of us get from the products the companies produce. However, it has been known for chip companies to exceed their licensed limits and receive slaps on the wrist for doing so.

In 2000, for instance air pollution equipment at Intel's Rio Rancho fab failed 12 times in a three-month period. Production continued while the air-scrubbers were out of action, releasing 762lbs of volatile organic compounds into the air. Intel's scrubbers reduce the emissions concentration from 4-10 parts per million to 1-2 parts per million. "For reference, one capful of bleach to one gallon of water equals 50 parts per million," said Intel's health and safety manager James Casciano at the time, but as we pointed out, volatile organic compounds are rather nastier than bleach.

We should point out that Intel is by no means unique in experiencing such problems. ®

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