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EE Times turns 50 – Hall of Fame Part 2

As part of EE Time’s 50th anniversary celebration, they’ve created a virtual “Hall of Fame” for engineers “who have helped make the industry safer and cleaner!” In my last post, I wrote about two of the Hall of Famers, Ed Sawicki and Neal Langerman. This week, I’ll round things out with a post on Braden Allenby and Mousumi Bhat.

Braden Allenby

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were once used in a broad range of applications, many in the electronics industry which “relied intimately on CFCs for cleaning every electrical connection at every step of the manufacturing process.” While at one point it was thought that CFCs evaporated and miraculously disappeared once they were done with them, that turned out not to be the case. They were up in the stratosphere, boring a hole in the ozone layer. If the hole kept growing, we’d be facing all sorts of environmental devastation, wreaking havoc on human health in all sorts of ways and damaging crops as well.

Unfortunately, when it came to the electronics industry, “no one had any idea how to make chips or circuit boards without them.”

Enter Braden Allenby.

While working as an attorney for AT&T, Allenby began pursuing a PhD in environmental science in his free time. His dissertation, completed in 1992, ended up helping to bring about a sea change in the way our industry took the CFC problem on.

Companies had typically treated environmental considerations as an afterthought, relegating corrective action to “end of pipe” solutions — that is, trying to mitigate problems such as emissions and toxic chemicals after they were produced. “Executives saw environmental concerns as overhead,” said Allenby. “They didn’t think about them during planning and production. If you ended up with a bunch of barrels of toxic chemicals, then you got rid of the barrels. If you made the air or water dirty, then you tried to clean it up. There was no systemic approach to protecting the environment.”

In his dissertation, Allenby argued for the much-needed ‘systemic approach’ – one that took environmental considerations into account throughout the development and manufacturing process, rather than waiting to solve a problem at the “end of the pipe.” Further, Allenby promoted the idea that taking care of the environment was a key strategic issue, not just a cost issue.

From his position at AT&T, Allenby was able to make sure that his dissertation didn’t just sit on the shelf. He worked on creating a collaborative process, in which AT&T joined up with both competitors and the EPA to help resolve environmental problems. The organization that Allenby was a catalyst for, the Industry Cooperative for Ozone Layer Protection (ICOLP) worked.

Within a few years, ICOLP had produced a range of techniques and identified a number of CFC alternatives that filled the bill in different electronics manufacturing applications, at different stages of the process, and with different types of materials. Those solutions were not only freely shared with all of the industry, including companies that had nothing to do with ICOLP, but they were distributed to other industries and governments around the world.

Further, ICOLP took on the industry’s lead solder problem.

While some lead solder is still used today, the group helped develop a way to use nitrogen gas that allowed lead alternatives such as bismuth and silver to work in many soldering applications.

Today, thanks in large part to Allenby’s efforts, the industry understands the role they must play in cooperatively stepping up to solve environmental challenges.

Mousumi Bhat

Nearly twenty years ago, it was a question from her 7-year-old daughter, which prompted Bhat to start focusing on greenhouse gases. While they were planting a tree, her daughter – I’m guessing a scientist in the making – asked “why no one had invented an artificial version of photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn sunlight into energy while capturing carbon dioxide.” This got Bhat thinking, and, as she was then working as an R&D manager at Motorola, her thinking honed in on the semiconductor industry, and ways to make it run more sustainably.

[Bhat’s] 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.

In this role, Bhat is taking on an ambitious sustainable mission to cut down on the greenhouse gases the industry generates.

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.”

Bhat is focusing on three different arenas, or “scopes.” Scope 1 concerns the emissions that a company is directly responsible for. In the semiconductor industry, these come from the gases (perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride) used in chip making. Scope 2 emissions come from the tremendous amount of energy the semiconductor industry requires for heating and cooling along its entire manufacturing process.

Even after years of work, improvements have been incremental, and cost-effective technologies remain somewhat elusive.

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.

SEMI has just launched a new initiative, the Semiconductor Climate Consortium, to focus on the three scopes, and accelerate the process of implementing change. It will also focus on end-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.

Interesting that Bhat’s new job was the end result of a question her daughter asked her nearly twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, congratulations to all four Hall of Fame engineers, and to David Freedman for his series introducing me to these pioneers. Lots of work still to be done, but it’s gratifying to see that so much has already been accomplished.