Friday, November 16, 2007

Recycling computer chip scrap for solar panels

You can make solar panels out of it and help reduce our demand on fossil fuels. Or you can make computer chips out of it. And computers are a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the environment. On the one hand, they can help pave the way toward a paperless society. On the other hand, it takes a hefty amount of energy to run the average computer.

So is it more responsible to use silicon for computer chips or solar panels? It turns out you might be able to have the best of both worlds. IBM has announced a new method for using scrap material from microchip creation to make solar panels.

As things stand, a tiny bit of silicon is discarded for every computer chip that's manufactured. While that might not seem like much, there's a huge demand for computer chips, and IBM estimates that 3 million silicon wafers are thrown out every year. If you built solar panels out of that material, you could power 6,000 houses. But right now, that material is demolished and landfilled.

That's because each chip includes proprietary data that companies don't want released to the public. They're perfectly recyclable today, but chip makers don't want competing companies to see the information on each chip, so they're destroyed. IBM's innovation is a technique for polishing wafers and removing any proprietary information, making the wafers suitable for building solar panels.

If the technique catches on, it could lead chip makers to partner with solar panel manufacturers. Chip makers could make a few bucks by selling the scrap material, while solar panel makers would benefit from lower-priced recycled silicon.