The Quest to Unite an Industry Around Sustainability

Article By : David H. Freedman

How can the semiconductor industry better achieve its environmental goals with the help of greener chipmaking?

Eighteen years ago, Mousumi Bhat’s 7-year–old daughter asked her why no one had invented an artificial version of photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn sunlight into energy while capturing carbon dioxide. The query, posed while the two were planting a tree, caught Bhat off guard. “It was a good question, so I promised her I’d find out what I could,” she said. “It seemed like something scientists would be researching.”

A search on the topic didn’t provide Bhat, who at the time was a research and development manager at Motorola, with any special insight into artificial photosynthesis. But it did ignite in her an intense curiosity about what technology could actually do to reduce greenhouse gases, especially in ways that might help semiconductor manufacturers operate more sustainably.

That curiosity would lead to a long quest to actually do something to advance greener chipmaking. She was somewhat ahead of her time at the start, because few major companies in 2004 saw decarbonizing as a high-priority goal. But over time, the semiconductor industry, not to mention the rest of the world, has come to share her sense of urgency. And earlier this year, Bhat was finally put in the right position to do something about it when SEMI, the organization representing the global semiconductor supply chain, named Bhat vice president of sustainability.

That position places Bhat in charge of a mission to pull together the world’s semiconductor and other electronics companies to curb the greenhouse gases they directly or indirectly generate. It’s a sustainability mission that is among the world’s most ambitious — as well as one that presents daunting challenges, requiring a massive marshaling of innovation, investment, and commitment from the industry far beyond anything it has done before to operate more sustainably. “The industry has in recent years made significant cuts in carbon emissions,” said Bhat. “But now what’s left are the hard problems, and they require solutions that must be implemented at scale and at high speed.”

Changing perception

The semiconductor industry has a bigger carbon emissions problem than many realize, and it’s a problem that’s about to get much bigger. The trouble is rooted in the industry’s success, Bhat noted. An annual growth rate of about 10% has led to a worldwide boom in fab expansion and construction, with more than 80 new fabs scheduled to come online by 2025. The explosion in chipmaking volume is inevitably leading to a parallel blow-up in industry carbon emissions. “Our industry’s carbon footprint makes up about 1% of the world’s footprint today,” Bhat explained. “But soon, it will be about 12%. At this rate, by 2030, we’re going to be more than a factor of 2 behind where we’ve committed to be in our emissions-reduction goals.”

Not surprisingly, the public, regulators, and investors are paying more attention to semiconductor-related emissions, and that scrutiny is only going to grow in intensity, Bhat said. “We’ve been fourth or fifth on the list of the industries with the biggest environmental footprints, including transportation, energy, and agriculture. But those other industries are making significant improvements, and it’s going to leave us floating toward the top of the list.”

The path to leadership

Becoming SEMI’s sustainability chief was a big leap for Bhat, but it’s one the MIT graduate has been preparing for since her daughter asked her that question. As a manager in operations, first at Motorola, then at GlobalFoundries, and finally at Micron Technology, she gradually pushed sustainability into her duties. “It was at the top of my agenda, along with social equity,” she said.

When SEMI decided it needed someone full-time to lead its 2,500 members and the industry in upping its sustainability game, Bhat was quick to express interest. “I felt it was time to pivot in my career to focus entirely on decarbonizing the industry,” she said.

She had no illusions of easy solutions. The path to industry decarbonization runs through three “scopes” of greenhouse gas emissions. In Scope 1 emissions, which are those directly released by a company, the semiconductor industry has to confront the significant use of gases like perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride. These gases are used in the chip-manufacturing process for cleaning and etching and are actually worse for global warming than carbon dioxide. In Scope 2 emissions, those that are emitted outside the company in order to provide the energy the company consumes, the semiconductor industry is deeply dependent on intensive heating and cooling throughout the manufacturing process that cranks up energy consumption.

Those two classes of emissions can in theory be addressed through the use of alternative gases and manufacturing processes. But a more complex challenge is presented by Scope 3 emissions, which are those created throughout the supply chain for chips and other electronic components, as well as through the downstream use of the industry’s products.

CEOs are realizing that these problems can’t be solved entirely within their own companies, said Bhat. That’s true even for Scope 1 and 2 emissions: The industry has yet to come up with cost-effective technologies that provide more than incremental improvements in replacing the gases used in manufacturing or in reducing energy requirements. And what individual companies can do to impact the global electronics supply chain, not to mention what individual electronics users can do, is even more limited, Bhat noted. “To do anything about Scope 3 emissions, we have to impact a supply chain that’s 10 or more levels deep, and that is global.”

A new coalition

The only way forward is through an industry coalition, argues Bhat, one that aggregates its research and economic might into a shared attack on all three scopes. SEMI has been facilitating shared action for nearly two years through various initiatives, but Bhat said the organization is ready to push harder for a strong collective response to the challenge.

That effort is taking the form of a first-of-its-kind Semiconductor Climate Consortium, launching Nov. 1. Among its key goals: sharing technological solutions to Scope 1 problems, including ways to implement them in as little as two years instead of the more typical decade that it takes to change manufacturing processes; pushing companies throughout the global electronics supply chain to reduce their own footprints; and engaging governments to increase the availability of green energy. “We have to address that problem beyond the walls of our own industry,” said Bhat. “We need a combined body to voice our needs for the right mix of clean energy.”

What’s more, said Bhat, the consortium will be collaborating on ways to build consumer awareness of the advantages of reducing waste from discarded products and to facilitate the availability of more products that are repairable, upgradeable, and recyclable. “We need a lot of activity around creating circularity in product life cycles,” said Bhat.

Bhat contends that once the industry comes together to collectively tackle these problems, not only will it solve the industry’s sustainability issues, it will go further and find ways for other industries to do the same. “This industry is all about creating solutions,” she said. “With our talent and intellectual curiosity, we should be able to help the larger world.”


This article was originally published on EE Times.


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