Turning the Chips Around

IBM"s recovered silicon could help drive down costs for solar panel production.© Gety Images

Computer maker IBM has found a way to save money, reduce waste, and contribute to the development of the solar power industry with just one smart innovation—recycling defective semiconductor chips and sending the recovered refined silicon to manufacturers of photovoltaic solar cells. A worldwide shortage of refined silicon, the key ingredient in both semiconductors and solar cells, has kept prices for solar power artificially high in recent years, and photovoltaic producers welcome the news of IBM’s breakthrough in processing its wasted chips for them.

"It reduces our cost and it reduces our carbon footprint," says Thomas Jagielski, who heads up environmental operations at IBM’s chip factory in Burlington, Vermont. "And it provides resources to the solar industry."

Currently IBM discards upwards of three percent of the semiconductor chips it produces due to flaws that could impact the quality and performance of the computers it helps to create. By recycling these chips, the company expects to save about $1.5 million a year, while getting credit for helping make solar power more affordable for both producers and consumers.

"One of the challenges facing the solar industry is a severe shortage of silicon, which threatens to stall its rapid growth," says Charles Bai of the Chinese solar company ReneSola, which has agreed to purchase some of IBM’s recycled silicon. "This is why we’ve turned to reclaimed silicon materials sourced primarily from the semiconductor industry to supply the raw material our company needs."

Across the computer industry, as many as three million silicon wafers are discarded every year. IBM analysts say that the amount of refined silicon they could harvest from such chips would generate about 13.5 megawatts of energy annually if used in solar cells—enough to power about 6,000 typical American homes.

Sources: Planet Ark; CNN Money