The chip industry chains one crisis to the next. During the pandemic, the shortage of semiconductors put various industries globally in jeopardy. By then, the potential consequences of the monopoly on its production, which is concentrated in the economies of the Asian dragons, especially Taiwan and South Korea, were already glimpsed; then geopolitics came into play, with the ups and downs caused by the war in Ukraine and the tensions between China and Taiwan. And in recent months, the debate has spread about the serious environmental threat posed by the mass production of these electronic products, since the chemical substances used for their manufacture, known as PFAS, carry potential impacts for the ecosystem and for the people's health.
PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) are man-made chemical compounds that are manufactured and used to improve the quality and performance of microchips. This affects not only the technology industry, but also that of electric vehicles or aerospace, among many others; They are also used in food processing, in the manufacture of fire fighting suits or in construction. The European Union has put the magnifying glass on these chemicals and it seems that it is serious, to the point of considering that their use be prohibited, according to a report in the Financial Times.
And it is that the European Environment Agency has been warning about the effects of PFAS on human health for more than a decade. Various studies have shown that these chemicals can accumulate in the environment and in the bodies of living beings, causing damage to human health and ecosystems. But now the EU has already begun to set deadlines to ban the use of certain amounts of these chemicals in the manufacture of chips, which has put leading companies in the semiconductor industry, such as Intel and TSMC, on alert. And in parallel, Europe is injecting a lot of money to produce its own chips.
The search for safer and more sustainable alternatives has become a priority for the chip industry. Companies are investing in research and development to find new chemicals and processes that can replace PFAS without compromising microchip quality. But it is not easy or fast. The executive director of the multinational chemical Chemours, Mark Newman, explains to the Financial Times that pressure from the EU is already causing these key substances in the manufacture of microchips to be on the way to "complete exhaustion". So ensuring the supply for this year will be difficult.
PFASs are perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances that have been “built on a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atom”. According to the European Environment Agency, it is "a group of more than 4,700 widely used synthetic chemical agents that accumulate over time in humans and in the environment." Furthermore, PFASs are popularly known as "everlasting chemicals" as they are "extraordinarily persistent in the environment and in our bodies."
In the document published by the European Environment Agency, Emerging chemical risks in Europe: PFAS, the consequences that these "eternal chemicals" can cause are detailed. They highlight liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility problems and cancer. Additionally, various scientific investigations have found PFAS in the blood of 99% of Americans, and unsafe levels on US and European soil.
The possible ban on PFASs poses a challenge to balance the need for advanced technology with the protection of the environment and human health. The EU already got underway last March by holding a public consultation on proposals to veto 10,000 chemicals. In addition, they marked a transition period of 13.5 years for the chip industry to adapt.
However, the companies in the sector point out that this time frame is not enough, since, until now, a more respectful alternative with the environment and health has not been found. Components that are "made of or coated with PFAS are highly resistant to the corrosive chemicals used." It is for this reason that the quality of the latest generation chips is guaranteed. The manufacturing companies warn that at the moment "there are no alternatives on the market" that ensure the same reliability.
If EU-listed chemicals are finally banned, Europe will find itself at a major crossroads as the major chip-producing companies will begin a race to find new alternatives. And it is worth noting that Europe set itself the objective, last April, of producing 20% of the world chip market in 2030. This was stated by the Union after reaching an agreement with the European Parliament on the European Law on chips.
This regulation aims to double its semiconductor production to reduce its dependence on Asia and avoid a repeat of situations such as the lack of supply suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.