Silicon to Solar: Semiconductor Technology for Renewable Energy

Sherin, CSP, Brian

Global demand for fossil fuels continues to rise as the global economy continues to expand and populations grow. Fossil fuels (e.g., oil, natural gas, and coal) pose several significant challenges, including climate change, local air pollution/health impact, fire safety, economic impact, and geopolitical turmoil. In the U.S., the Department of Energy says fossil fuels accounted for 85.8% of the nation’s energy in 2005. After several false starts over the past 30 years, it appears that alternative, renewal energy sources are beginning to gain some traction, although they only currently account for 6% of the U.S. total. While no one energy source is likely going to be able to replace fossil fuel usage, one technology can be used to directly generate electricity – photovoltaics. Given the similarities in materials and processes between traditional microelectronics and photovoltaic manufacturing, several semiconductor industry companies have begun to move into the industry (Applied Materials, Kyocera, Sharp, Cypress Semiconductor, etc.). Photovoltaic materials include silicon compounds, as well as compound semiconductor materials such as copper indium diselenide (CIS), copper indium gallium diselenide (CGS), gallium arsenide (GaAs) and cadmium telluride (CdTe). The life cycle of photovoltaic materials will pose many similar environmental, safety and health (ESH) issues as seen in the semiconductor industry, as well as some new ones. This paper will present an overview of global energy issues pushing the entry of the semiconductor industry into this related industry, an overview of the manufacturing process, and the ESH (toxic gases, fire safety, etc.) and life cycle issues (e.g., sustainability, product takeback/recycling, etc) associated with the processes and materials.

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