Chip makers moving to reduce use of lead

Intel and National Semiconductor have announced plans to significantly reduce the amount of lead contained within their products, the companies said in separate press releases.

Intel plans to begin shipping lead-free packages with some of its processors and chipsets starting in the third quarter of this year, and with some of its embedded processors in the second quarter.

National Semiconductor's products would be completely lead-free by the end of the year, it said.

Electrical components have been attached to circuit boards using solder, a mixture of lead and tin, for decades. Lead is commonly used in the semiconductor industry as part of the package that connects the processor to the rest of the motherboard. It is considered an extremely toxic element, but semiconductor companies have found it difficult to find a different element or combination of elements that reproduce lead's electrical and mechanical properties, the companies said.

Lead is also easy to obtain, and therefore cheap.

The two companies planned to use a mixture of silver, copper, and tin in their lead-free packages, they said.

Both Intel and National Semiconductor have already removed lead from portions of their product lines, in step with a general industry move away from the element.

Intel has shipped lead-free flash memory packages since 2002, and 90 per cent of National Semiconductor's products are available in lead-free packages.

Intel planned to eliminate 95 per cent of the lead it uses in its products, it said.

A small amount of lead and tin would still be used to attach a processor core to the chip package until a more environmentally friendly substance that meets the same performance and reliability requirements could be identified, Intel said.

Over the last few years, the semiconductor industry had responded to concerns that its products are capable of causing environmental damage.

Several PC companies have recycling programs that encourage users to return their PCs for proper disposal, rather than just throwing them away in the trash where they can pollute the environment.

Health concerns over the use of certain chemicals in the semiconductor manufacturing process had also plagued the industry in recent years. Chip companies have been reprimanded by the US Environmental Protection Agency about chemicals leaking into groundwater in California, and several former IBM employees have sued the company claiming that exposure to workplace chemicals caused them to develop cancer. IBM successfully defended itself at one recent trial in California, and settled another case in New York.

The Semiconductor Industry Association recently announced it would conduct a retrospective epidemiological study of semiconductor manufacturing employees after a Johns Hopkins University study concluded enough data existed to form a scientific conclusion about the rates of cancer within the industry.

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Tom Krazit

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