The Computer Industry Gets Rid of Lead

Computer Suppliers Tend to Require RoHS Compliancy

by Anton Shilov
12/16/2005 | 10:54 PM

While there is more than half of a year to go till the European Union (EU) imposes ban on electronic components that contain instances like lead, mercury and cadmium, some computer makers insist that the hardware supplied to them was already free of hazardous materials. Even though the aim of the restriction is to save human’s health, the regulation adds complex to the computer business.

 

EU Orders Lead Out

Starting from the July 1, 2006, EU plans to restrict the use of six substances within electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), thereby contributing to the protection of human health and the environment. The list of hazardous substances includes such materials as Lead (Pb), Mercury (Hg), Cadmium (Cd), Hexavalent Chromium, Polybrominated biphenyls as well as Polybrominated diphenyl ethers. While when the computers are used, they are not dangerous, when the components are utilized after users get rid of old machines, those elements become harmful.

Although RoHS is EU directive, manufacturers of EEE outside Europe must also abide by this legislation if the equipment they produce is ultimately imported into an EU member state. Given that the majority of computer components are made outside EU, Asian companies have to find ways to comply to those rulings and manufacture hardware without hazardous substances.

Board Makers, Chipmakers Should Care

In fact, not only board manufacturers have to produce boards without hazardous materials, but even chip designers have to care about the absence of lead from packaging of their products. For instance, lead can be found in heat-spreaders, substrate, solder balls and even bumping. For all these situations developers have to find a substitute, for instance, solder balls can consist of tin (Sn), silver (Ag) and copper (Cu) composite, which has been found as the most suitable.

The world’s largest chipmaker Intel Corp. had announced plans to eliminate 95% of lead from their processors and chipsets by the end of 2004. From time to time Intel now announces changes in packaging of remaining components that have so far used lead. Advanced Micro Devices also has no problems with RoHS-compliancy: the company promised to transit all of its microprocessor production in accordance with RoHS directive by July, 2006, a year before the directive will take effect. Chipsets AMD makes, in major cases, are also being transitioned.

 But not everything is clear with developers of graphics processors who do not have their own fabs and have to contract makers of chips, assemblers and producers of graphics cards. Given that packaging and assembling using new materials requires adoption of new process technologies and due to higher temperatures the allows require – even equipment, some makers of mainboards and graphics cards, including some assemblers of chips, have not yet started to produce RoHS-compliant components, which sometimes causes shortages of certain products. Even one of the world’s largest makers of graphics cards – Microstar International – only in mid-December announced its first graphics cards compliant with RoHS.

Graphics Chip Designers Proclaim Compliancy

“Our responsibility is to produce RoHS compliant ASICs. We can offer them for most newer GPUs and all Radeon Express chipsets,” said Friederike Gonzalez, ATI spokeswoman in Munich, Germany.

In fact, the RADEON X1000-based graphics cards produced at request of ATI are already compliant with the new directive.

“All X1000-series products are available in RoHS compliant versions today (ASIC and board) and previous generation products are available in RoHS compliant versions based on customer requirements and demand,” said Andrzej Bania, an ATI representative in London, UK.

NVIDIA Corp. also seems to be on-track with the RoHS products, even though it denies to determine whether the latest GeForce 7800-series boards comply to the directive.

“As NVIDIA is a global leader in the semiconductor industry, we’ve spent the last 12-18 months preparing for this transition and will continue to emphasize the importance of environmental conservation and responsibility. Today, NVIDIA already is shipping a RoHS compliant version of our GPUs in many of product offerings, and the transition to RoHS will continue well into 2006,” said Luciano Alibrandi, a spokesman for NVIDIA in Paris, France.

“Additionally, we have been working with our board partners and component
suppliers to make sure that this transition is seamless to the OEMs and
our partners NVIDIA,” Mr. Alibrandi added.

Even S3 Graphics, a designer of graphics chips with minor market share, said its latest Chrome S20-series products were RoHS compliant.

RoHS-compliancy does not come for free. Products that comply with the directive are slightly more expensive to produce, which may be important for smaller companies.

“There might be a small premium on the complete cards and boards, because these products consist of hundreds of components. Some of these are simply more expensive currently,” said Friederike Gonzalez, ATI spokeswoman in Munich, Germany.