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Chipmakers Going Lead-Free

In an attempt to get the lead out, three semiconductor manufacturers announced plans to reduce the amount of heavy metal in their chips by as much as 95 percent.

Prompted by U.S. and European regulations, Silicon Valley-based Intel, AMD, and National Semiconductor all announced separate plans this week to alter product packaging with combinations of tin/silver/copper alloys in order to make it more environmentally friendly. Computer makers use lead in the soldering of printed circuit boards and other electronic components as well as in the glass panels in CRT (cathode ray tubes) computer monitors.

While there are no direct exposure dangers while the computers are in use, lead accumulates in the environment and has high acute and chronic toxic effects on children, plants, animals and microorganisms. According to the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition, by 2004 more than 315 million computers will become obsolete is the USA. This adds up to about 1.2 billion pounds of lead. The danger is even greater overseas where dumping laws are improving but less strict.

Intel said it shipped its first lead-free memory chips last year and would begin shipping the lead-free technology with select microprocessors and chipsets in the second half of this year and its embedded processors by the end of June. The new packages are expected to use lead-free solder balls, about the size of salt crystals, and represent the majority of lead used in Intel microprocessor packaging. Intel is working with the industry to find an alternative solution for the tiny amount of lead still needed inside the processor packaging to connect the actual silicon "core" to the package.

In the meantime, Intel said it would continue to ship processors with the current packaging during the transition period to help out system manufacturers who need time to develop and qualify their lead-free processes and products.

Separately, National Semi said it wants to replace approximately five tons of lead it uses in a year to build its integrated circuit (IC) products. The company said it would also look at cutting out as much bromine and antimony-based flame-retardants in its chips as possible. Both processes should be complete by the end of the year.

Currently, 90 percent of National's portfolio of 15,000 analog and mixed-signal ICs are lead-free package types. The company said it used use lead in the finish of copper lead frame-based packages. It was also used in the solder balls of array packages such as Micro SMD, PBGA and FBGA packages. National said it would replace the lead in lead frame packages with a matte tin finish, and in the solder balls with a tin-silver-copper alloy.

AMD said it is participating in the European Community's July 1, 2006 phase-out deadline for lead in electronic products, with some exceptions. The company already has initiated a lead-free research and development program, and is working with suppliers and other companies to establish lead-free standards and testing requirements and to identify possible substitutes.

As part of its latest "Spansion" Flash memory family release, AMD in cooperation with Fujitsu has announced its S29AL/GLxxxM device family for embedded applications. The product line is offering lead-free packaging, which the company said contain less than 0.1 percent total weight of lead, to reduce environmental impact and help compliance efforts with international regulations.