Computer chip giant Intel has today confirmed that all its future processors, beginning with its next generation Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Quad and Xeon processors later this year, are going to be entirely lead free.
Alastair Kemp, a spokesman for the company, said that Intel had faced a number of major "engineering challenges" in eradicating lead - which is used in the solder that connects processors to the motherboard - as lead-based solders have the correct properties required to ensure connections are maintained as the heated processors expand and contract.
However, now the company has found a working replacement in the form of a tin/silver/copper alloy and a new design for the micro-electronic "bumps" (pictured left) that attach chips to the packages that wrap around them and ultimately connect the processors to the motherboard.
"It was a question of finding a material that could expand and contract with the heat, while keeping contact [with the packages] and not wearing out over time," said Kemp.
The new technology will be launched later this year in Intel's 45 nanometer (nm) high-k metal gate (Hi-k) processors, which includes its new Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Quad and Xeon processors, before being rolled out across all its next generation chipsets from next year.
Besides having clear environmental and health benefits the new lead free chips will also make it easier for Intel to comply with imminent legislation that could see lead banned from IT equipment completely
Under the current EU Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, which bans the use of six hazardous chemicals often found in IT equipment, there is an exemption that allows lead to continue to be used in small quantities because it was agreed there was no viable solder alternative.
Prior to RoHS being launched several IT firms argued that alternative solders, such as the mix of tin, silver and copper now being used by Intel, were not viable at the time as they have higher melting points that increase risks of damaging motherboards during the manufacturing process. Further concerns were also voiced that so called tin whiskers, whereby tin can grow over time, could compromise the reliability of the new alloy.
However, this RoHS exemption is due to be reviewed in 2010 and experts agree that with Intel and other manufacturers making progress in eradicating lead entirely there is every chance lead could be banned altogether from IT equipment within the next few years.
"This new development helps us exceed the requirements of RoHS," said Kemp. "We know those exemptions [covering lead] are due to expire at some point and this gets us compliant well ahead of that."
The move was welcomed by Zeina Alhajj of Greenpeace who said that it proves that the IT industry is capable of innovating in order to get rid of dangerous chemicals.
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