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IBM rubs its junk for solar industry

Refurbishes wafers for the silicon-starved

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IBM is transforming its scrap silicon wafers into profitable material used to produce solar panels.

IBM describes the new silicon retrieval process as a "specialized pattern removal technique," although it bares a striking resemblance to just buffing a wafer with an abrasive pad. By stripping the etched layers of semiconductor designs that contain intellectual property, IBM can repurpose the scrap wafers to sell to the solar industry, which is suffering from a silicon shortage.

Of course, the process could be more complex than it looks, as IBM is rather pleased with itself for thinking it up. IBM even scored the company a Most Valuable Pollution Prevention Award from The National Pollution Prevention Roundtable 2007 for its chip rub.

Judge for yourself on a short video IBM has prepared.

The silicon disks can also be reused in internal manufacturing calibration — but that doesn't grab a company any eco-points.

Chipmakers use silicon wafers as the starting material for manufacturing microelectronic products. IBM estimates that up to 3.3 per cent of its started wafers get scrapped. This amounts to approximately three million discarded wafers per year, the company said. Usually those wafers are crushed and sent to landfills or melted down and resold.

The price of polysilicon wafers for solar cells has steadily been rising as the worldwide green infatuation has put a shortage on the necessary materials. Some predict that a continued cost increase, will push solar makers beyond their profit margins.

IBM predicts by selling refurbished wafers to the solar industry it will save over $1m annually.

The reclamation process is currently in use at IBM's Burlington, VT facility and in the process of being implemented at IBM's East Fishkill, NY, semiconductor fabrication plant. ®

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