Cost of Intel's lead-free move hits US$100M, and counting

Cost of Intel's lead-free move hits US$100M, and counting

Intel has so far spent more than US$100 million to make its products lead-free, and the costs are still mounting.

Intel's efforts to remove lead from its chips have so far cost the company more than $US100 million and there is no clear end in sight to the project's mounting costs, according to a company executive.

Lead is widely used in electronics and as much as 90 per cent of electronic components contain some amount of lead, according to Intel.

Intel currently uses a small amount of lead as an ingredient in the solder that is used to package semiconductors and attach them to printed circuit boards, including motherboards.

Lead's unique combination of electrical and mechanical properties makes it an ideal ingredient for solder, but the metal is highly toxic.

"People are starting to market products based on environmental characteristics and we have to respond to that," director of sustainable development at Intel's environment, health and safety department, Timothy Mohin, said.

In recent years, a growing number of countries, including the European Union, have introduced regulations that require companies to reduce or eliminate the use of lead in electronics, even as researchers struggle to find a suitable replacement for the metal. Intel began working to remove lead from its products in 2000 and the project has so far proved costly for the world's largest chip maker.

"The cost to get from lead to no-lead solders is substantial and thus far we have spent upwards of $100 million," Mohin said.

While costly, these efforts have yielded results for the chip maker. In 2002, Intel started using a tin/silver/copper alloy for solder in a lead-free package for flash memory chips.

Intel further reduced its use of lead last year, extending the use of the lead-free alloy as a replacement for the tin/lead solder used with some processors and chipsets. However, the tin/silver/copper alloy is only used for soldering processors and chipsets to a motherboard. A small amount of lead - around 0.2gm per chip - is still used inside the chip to bond the silicon die to the chip packaging.

Finding a way to eliminate this remaining lead from Intel's products would take time, Mohin said. however, the company hoped to be completely lead-free within five years.

"We're still working through this," he said.

The ultimate cost of the effort to get the lead out of Intel's chips had yet to be determined, Mohin said. The company did not have a clear estimate for what the final cost would be.

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