Semiconductor manufacturers are able to make an increasingly important contribution to ensuring that end products use the minimal amount of energy and are efficient.

There is significant global focus on energy efficiency, and we are all encouraged to use less energy and make energy-efficient choices, whether it be a new washing machine or considering the overall energy efficiency of the buildings in which we live and work.

Semiconductor manufacturers are able to make an increasingly important contribution to ensuring that end products from cars to vacuum cleaners and laptops to factory automation equipment use the minimal amount of energy and are efficient. Indeed, ON Semiconductor’s mantra is “energy-efficient innovations.”

To put it in perspective, worldwide energy consumption was over 20 petawatt-hours (PWh) in 2015; that’s equivalent to $2.4 trillion. Of the energy consumed, around 50 percent was by electric-motor-driven systems, which are, in turn, controlled, managed and regulated by semiconductor devices.

Our increasingly “electrified” world means that, despite all of the products we use becoming more efficient, the net requirement for power is still on the increase; in fact, some estimates suggest that demand will have grown by 55 percent between 2005 and 2030.

Electronics technology in general — and, most notably, semiconductors — have been a great enabler in recent years for making existing iterations of everything from notebook computers to washing machines more frugal when it comes to their power requirements and, in so doing, placing less demand on the grid and, therefore, power generation itself.

But it mustn’t be overlooked that the actual process of making semiconductors can be extremely resource-hungry. ON Semiconductor has sustainability activity and goals throughout its business that form part of the fabric of its corporate and social responsibility program and ethos. These provide good examples of what the manufacturing sector can and should do in this area.

Promising signs on use of renewable sources
Firstly, a step back to consider the generation of the energy that we use. A progressive move away from non-sustainable and polluting energy-generation methods — such as the burning of fossil fuels — and toward renewables such as wind, wave, hydro, and solar has further helped reduce the impact on the planet due to the demand for electrical power. Some countries have “grasped the nettle” when it comes to renewable, sustainable energy production. As an example, on one Sunday in early May this year, Germany momentarily met virtually 100 percent of its requirements through renewables, which provided the country with 45.5 gigawatts of power. This marked a milestone in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “Energiewende” policy to boost renewable use to allow the phasing out of fossil and nuclear fuels.

Other interesting trends include China’s performance in the last decade as its highly focused drive away from fossil fuels has been very successful, and indications are that it will achieve its ambitious goals. Already, China is the world’s biggest producer and user of renewable-energy technologies and is committed to doubling wind power and quadrupling solar by 2020.

For economic and other reasons, developing countries can be slow adopters of non-polluting, sustainable energy forms, but even here, there are positive stories and trends. Countries such as Costa Rica and, surprisingly, highly fragmented and recently very unstable nations such as Afghanistan are making strong progress.

Energy-efficient semiconductors and their contribution to overall green credentials
Semiconductors provide the heartbeat and intelligence at the core of the electronics systems in products across the many market sectors where energy efficiency is or is becoming paramount. Whether it be for precise motor control or power and battery management in portable equipment, semiconductors are helping to optimize how products use power with the overarching goal to use less.

Since its acquisition of Fairchild, ON Semiconductor now offers devices across the voltage spectrum that help minimize power use and maximize efficiency for motor control, high-performance power conversion, power management, and much more.

Variable frequency drives (VFDs), which rely on semiconductor technology, offer the opportunity to save huge amounts of energy when used to control motors in applications ranging from factory automation and robotics to smart climate control systems for efficient buildings.

Cloud computing, a massive growth area, meanwhile, demands large amounts of power to run and cool the thousands of servers that store and manipulate data, and here, small-form-factor integrated semiconductor power modules are helping to save space, energy, and, ultimately, cost. ON Semiconductor’s GreenPoint Design Tools can help in this area by providing the capability to develop, simulate, analyze, and optimize reference designs for maximum energy efficiency in an online environment.

Making energy-efficient devices energy efficiently
In line with the rest of industry, companies producing the components that enable greater energy efficiency should look closely at their own energy and resource use to make sure that they are not effectively undoing the good work that they are enabling. The bigger the scale of the operation, the more significant the potential environmental impact and the more important it is to do something about it. In ON Semiconductor’s case, this certainly applies, with the company employing 30,000 people worldwide and producing parts at a rate of nearly 70 billion semiconductor devices per year, or the equivalent of 9.3 devices per person. The company has stated sustainability goals for, among other things, energy and water use and waste reduction.

Making semiconductors is a complex, multi-stage process that uses significant amounts of resources including electricity and water. Motors and, therefore, motor drives are used in many parts of the manufacturing process, so switching from conventional motors to VFDs is an important step that can be implemented relatively easily to save energy and also provide payback on initial capital investment in a relatively short period of time. VFDs match the amount of energy that a motor needs to the amount of work that is being done and can save upwards of 60 percent in terms of the energy used.

All industrial buildings need lighting and often a lot of it. Across a multi-site large-scale operation, the energy used by lighting technologies such as incandescent and CFL can be very large. LED lighting technology — with the help of semiconductor devices — has developed and matured and, at the same time, the somewhat prohibitive costs that slowed the recouping of initial outlay have decreased. In addition, the format of LED lights now means that direct replacements for CFL and incandescent bulbs are almost universally available, simplifying the business of retrofitting.

LEDs use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, and both incandescent and CFL bulbs are extremely inefficient, releasing the vast majority (90 percent and 80 percent, respectively) of their energy as heat as opposed to light. ON Semiconductor, like many other manufacturing businesses, is using LED lighting technology as extensively as possible, and combined with the use of VFDs, this yields major energy savings and enhances the company’s environmental credentials.

End-to-end sustainability goals
Responsible use of energy and other resources by businesses and consumers is extremely important. Although the use of sustainable and renewable technologies to generate electricity are on the rise, fossil fuels are still the mainstay, and the need to keep working at reducing consumption is key.

For companies like ON Semiconductor, who are engaged in designing and manufacturing semiconductors that help realize low-power, high-efficiency product designs, there is an opportunity to have an impact on multiple levels by also having a structured, proactive approach to managing energy use in its plants and offices around the world.

Keenan Evans is senior vice president of quality at ON Semiconductor. He has 35 years of experience in the semiconductor industry across a variety of disciplines including technology development, materials analysis, device and process development, chemical sensors, quality, reliability, and environmental affairs.