Intel, National Semiconductor Get The Lead Out

The high-tech industry races to meet stringent environmental regulations in Europe and Japan.

April 7, 2004

3 Min Read
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Intel Corp. and National Semiconductor Corp. on Wednesday said they would ship significantly more lead-free products by the end of year as the high-tech industry races to meet stringent environmental regulations in Europe and Japan.

Intel plans to eliminate about 95 percent of the lead used in its processors and chipsets, while National expects to offer lead-free packages for all its integrated-circuit products. About 90 percent of National's portfolio of 15,000 ICs are lead-free today, the company said.

Brain damage and other health dangers associated with lead exposure has prompted governments to ban the metal's use in a variety of products, including paint, automobile fuel, food cans, light bulbs and plumbing solder and fixtures.

The Europe Union and Japan, however, have passed stricter regulations than the U.S., banning the import of most lead-free products in 2006 and 2005, respectively. To meet those deadlines, Intel, National and other high-tech manufacturers have been scrambling to develop alternative alloys and to modify manufacturing processes to build environmentally safe, lead-free products.

"There's a tremendous amount of work to be done and it's going to be a real challenge to meet those deadlines," Bob Pfahl, vice president for operations at the National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative, an industry consortium based in Herndon, Va.In most cases, lead used in soldering components onto circuit boards is being replaced with a tin-silver-copper alloy, which requires more heat. Therefore, manufacturing processes have had to be changed, which means a new set of specifications and standards for the industry to follow, Pfahl said. In addition, lead-free products have to pass reliability standards.

But one of the most difficult issues has been the change required in standards used in the electronics industry for identifying and describing products. Product information moves electronically between manufacturers and suppliers, and data standards have yet to be adopted for the new lead-free components.

"Information management is one of the big issues being worked on," Pfahl said. "We're making progress, but we're not there yet."

Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif., plans to begin shipping lead-free technology with select microprocessors and chipsets and embedded processors in the third and second quarters, respectively. The company has yet to solve the problem of eliminating the small amount, 0.02 grams, still needed to connect the actual silicon core to the package that includes other technology operating with the chip, officials said.

National, on the other hand, plans to have lead-free analog and mixed-signal ICs by the end of the year. The company, which makes semiconductor products for the electronics equipment industry, said the new products would eliminate five tons of lead used each year.Unlike Europe and Japan, U.S. regulators have been more focused on the manufacturing process used by semiconductor companies, than on the end products, Pfahl said. Companies using more than 100 pounds of lead a year must report how waste is being disposed and how employees are protected from exposure.

"The U.S. is not concerned with the product side," Pfahl said. "The general feeling is that the percentage of lead (in semiconductors) is very low, so the concentration in landfills is also quite low."

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