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As an integral part of its global environmental management system, IBM routinely and consistently monitors and manages the substances used in its development and manufacturing processes, and in its products.
Environmentally preferable substances and materials
IBM’s focus on environmentally preferable substances and materials considers the weight of scientific evidence for potential adverse effects on human health or the environment when selecting substances for use in the company’s products and processes. To that end, IBM is unique in its industry in maintaining corporate programs and strategic skill sets to evaluate product and process materials. As a result of initiatives in both product and process toxicology, we have proactively prohibited the use of certain substances, restricted their use or found alternative substances to use in our processes and products — even when current laws permit such use.
When IBM develops new processes or significantly modifies existing processes, we conduct a scientific assessment of all substances in the process, including those that have been approved previously. Through these scientific assessments, we seek to identify potential substitutes that may be environmentally preferable.
IBM has a long history of taking proactive steps to evaluate the chemicals used in our processes and products — first by identifying potential substitutes that may have less impact on the environment, health and safety, and then by eliminating, restricting and/or prohibiting the use of substances for which a more preferable alternative is available that is capable of meeting the quality and safety requirements of our processes and products.
Recent developments in U.S. federal chemical legislation highlight the effectiveness of IBM’s programs for environmentally preferable substances and materials. In 2016, reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in the United States opened a new chapter of regulatory investigation of chemical use throughout industry at large. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, also known as TSCA reform legislation, was signed into law, giving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) increased authority to systematically prioritize and assess existing chemical substances, and manage identified risks. The EPA has since identified the first 10 high-priority chemical substances to undergo risk evaluations under the new TSCA rules. IBM’s precautionary process stewardship programs addressed many of those substances a long time ago — eliminating some from our business, and establishing restrictions on others — in its ongoing commitment to identify and implement environmentally preferable substances and materials.
The following is a sampling of IBM’s 40-plus years of leadership in voluntarily prohibiting or restricting substances of concern from our processes and products, even before regulations required that we do so. For a more complete list, see our materials use webpage.
We communicate IBM’s restrictions on specific substances and other environmental requirements for our products through our Engineering Specification: Baseline Environmental Requirements for Supplier Deliverables to IBM.
Nanotechnology and horizon materials
By definition, nanotechnology is the application of scientific and engineering principles to make and utilize very small things (dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers), creating materials with unique properties and enabling novel and useful applications. It involves an ever-advancing set of tools, techniques and unique applications involving the structure and composition of materials at nanoscale.
Nanotechnology is already part of a wide variety of products — from cosmetics and sunscreens to paints, clothing and golf equipment. It can make products lighter, stronger, cleaner, less expensive, more precise and more energy-efficient. Nanotechnologies have been critical to advancements in the IT industry.
IBM Research became involved in the world of nanoscience in 1981 when Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the scanning tunneling microscope, revolutionizing our ability to manipulate solid surfaces the size of atoms. Since then, IBM has achieved numerous developments in the field — from moving and controlling individual atoms for the first time, to developing logic circuits using carbon nanotubes, to incorporating sub-nanometer material layers into commercially mass-produced hard disk drive recording heads and magnetic disk coatings.
We were also one of the first companies to create safe work practices and health and safety training for our employees working with nanoparticles. Further development of nanomaterials presents the potential to reduce the overall materials use footprint of microelectronics manufacturing as well as to produce advanced materials that reduce impact on both human health and the environment.
While IBM does not directly manufacture most components used in our current products, we continue to make significant new investments in research and development for “7 nanometer and beyond” silicon technology that will address physical challenges that threaten current semiconductor scaling. In addition, we are focused on developing alternative technologies for post-silicon-era chips using entirely different approaches that are required because of the physical limitations of silicon-based semiconductors.
In 2016, IBM scientists demonstrated a new way to store and process data using phase-change materials at nanoscale dimensions, opening a new pathway for the development of energy-efficient, integrated neuromorphic technologies for applications in cognitive computing. Inspired by the way the biological brain functions, IBM scientists created a large population of nanoscale artificial neurons that mimic biological neurons by integrating multiple input signals until a threshold is met, causing the artificial neurons to “fire.” The firing of the artificial neuron results in the transmission of fast and complex data signals. These data signals enable the performance of computational tasks such as data-correlation detection in real time and unsupervised learning at energy expenditures and densities comparable to those seen in biology — something scientists had been striving to accomplish for decades. Historically, artificial neurons have been built using CMOS-based circuits, the standard transistor technology used in everyday computers. IBM scientists, however, implemented the use of non-CMOS devices, such as nanoscale phase-change devices, to reproduce similar functionality at reduced power consumption and increased areal density. Applications for the artificial neurons could include detecting patterns in financial transactions to find discrepancies, or analyzing social media data in real time to discover new cultural trends. Large populations of these high-speed, low-energy nanoscale neurons could also be used in neuromorphic coprocessors with co-located memory and processing units. This enables these nanoscale networks to perform cognitive computing tasks that mimic the way the human brain processes information.
In developing nanomaterials and other horizon materials and technologies, IBM takes care to ensure that we minimize the risks that new materials may pose to employees and the environment. As a part of our upstream chemical review process, materials intended for core technology development are reviewed prior to their use in IBM processes and products. This rigorous review not only prevents specific chemicals from being used in IBM development and manufacturing processes, but also sets the conditions and settings in which other materials can be used — including engineering, administrative and personal protective controls. In addition, we continue to assess the environmental, health or safety impacts of our manufacturing processes, even after they are put into production, versus newly developed scientific information to determine if process and material changes are necessary.
Investigation into the occupational exposure limit for indium
As IBM Research continues to push the boundaries of conventional physics in the development of advanced microelectronics devices, the use of new and exotic materials (horizon materials) is necessary. So-called III-V materials, combinations of elements in the columns III and V of the periodic table, are good examples of this. As IBM and others in the microelectronics industry study these materials, indium and indium compounds are increasingly showing promise in microelectronic and photonic applications. However, not much is known regarding the environmental, health and safety aspects for many of these materials. A team of IBM toxicologists, industrial hygienists and occupational physicians from IBM’s Corporate Environmental Affairs and Integrated Health Services organizations carefully investigated the scientific and clinical literature regarding indium and indium compounds, as well as their use in IBM. The team’s work revealed that few documented Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) were available for these materials. The team further concluded that the available evidence suggested that the current recommended OELs for indium should be lowered as an added precaution for IBM employees. IBM has a formal process for establishing new internal OELs when its experts document that: 1) there is no OEL for a material in use, or 2) it can be documented that existing OELs for a material are no longer sufficient and should be lowered as a precaution.
Using quantitative toxicology risk assessment methods and techniques, IBM developed, peer-reviewed and adopted a new internal OEL that was orders of magnitude below the current OEL for these materials. Moving from the previous government recommended OEL of 100 µg/m3 dating back to 1969 (U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists) to a new IBM internal OEL of 0.03 µg/m3 for respirable indium, IBM continues a long record of precautionary assessment and reduction of risks associated with the chemicals and materials it brings into its operations.
IBM’s team then inventoried the uses of indium and indium compounds across IBM, determined the tasks and work areas in which exposures should be measured, and sampled associated employees for respirable airborne concentrations of indium. The results revealed the levels of respirable indium to which the sampled employees were exposed were all below the new OEL of 0.03 µg/m3. When new areas of indium use are brought online, workspace air sampling will be performed to assure that indium exposures remain below the new internal OEL.