NEW YORK (Reuters) - International Business Machine Corp said on Tuesday it has developed a silicon wafer recycling system that may help ease the refined silicon shortage that has limited output of solar energy panels.
IBM said it can remove intellectual property from discarded scrap semiconductor wafers made out of silicon. It can then sell them to the solar industry which uses the silicon in photovoltaic cells that generate electricity on rooftops.
Every day about 250,000 wafers are produced globally to make chips for products from cell phones to computers and to monitor and control manufacturing, according to a wafer industry group.
IBM estimates that 3.3 percent of those wafers are scrapped, which adds up to nearly 3 million discarded wafers per year. It estimates that the silicon from the discarded wafers could generate 13.5 megawatts of solar energy.
That is a small amount of the overall solar market. Sharp Corp, the world’s largest solar panel maker, makes about 710 megawatts’ worth of solar cells per year. But Eric White, an IBM semiconductor engineer who helped discover the recycling process, said that as the semiconductor industry grows, more of the wafers could become available for the solar industry.
And any new silicon could provide relief to the solar industry. Solar power currently generates much less than 1 percent of global electricity, but in recent years solar panel sales have had 30 to 40 percent annual growth. This year, the solar industry has tied the computer industry as the world’s largest consumer of refined silicon, a material that requires high temperatures and large amounts of energy to make.
“One of the challenges facing the solar industry is a severe shortage of silicon, which threatens to stall its rapid growth,” Charles Bai, chief financial officer of Chinese solar company ReneSola, said in a statement about the IBM recycling. “This is why we have turned to reclaimed silicon materials sourced primarily from the semiconductor industry to supply the raw material our company needs.”