Embedding sustainability: How homegrown semiconductor technology can help realise the UK’s sustainability goals
Homegrown technology and innovation can be vital catalysts when it comes to realising the UK’s sustainability goals. However, Government must set the conditions for these sectors to thrive.
As technology becomes ever more embedded into our daily lives and we demand more from the devices we use, addressing the ecological impact of electronics becomes more and more important. Research by The Eco Experts suggests that the technology sector is one of the seven most polluting global industries, responsible for over 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year1, a number which threatens to grow rapidly as demand for tech around the world continues to accelerate.
Semiconductor manufacturing makes a significant contribution to the overall environmental footprint of everyday electronic devices such as smartphones. In fact, according to Harvard University research, semiconductor chips represent 33% of Apple’s entire carbon footprint2.
With significant public and private investment going into the sector, semiconductor manufacturers have an increasing responsibility to decarbonise their operations.
We’re proud that Pragmatic’s flexible semiconductors can contribute to delivering a more sustainable semiconductor sector in two key ways: by reducing the footprint of semiconductor fabrication through innovative new processes, and by facilitating net zero and circular economy solutions in a range of other sectors.
One thousand times smaller – the carbon footprint of a flexible chip
To date, improvements to semiconductors have primarily focussed on maximising performance while overlooking the associated growth in carbon footprint.
At Pragmatic, we are taking a different approach. We have set our Race to Zero target as overall net zero emissions by 2030 even while scaling output. Our chips have a carbon footprint up to one thousand times smaller than traditional silicon semiconductors, and we use one hundred times less water and energy during production.
Our innovative distributed manufacturing model – ‘Fab-as-a-Service’ – also aids sustainability, by optimising semiconductor supply chains. It enables secure, dependable, localised supply of flexible semiconductors – at one hundred times lower capital expense than silicon fabs and eliminating the need to transport the finished product.
Facilitating a circular economy
Beyond the semiconductor industry, the innovative nature of our flexible chips provide solutions to some of society’s grand challenges, including the creation of a circular economy, and reducing food waste.
Take, for example, the Government’s plans to implement a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) from October 2025. DRS will add a deposit to drink purchases in bottles and cans, which can be reclaimed once the consumer recycles the package, encouraging greater recycling. The traditional DRS model requires customers to return used packaging to a deposit point, usually a Reverse Vending Machine (RVM).
By embedding a flexible chip in packaging, a digital DRS can instead be implemented, allowing items to be collected at kerbside, with the chip being automatically scanned to identify whether the item falls in scope of the DRS. If it does, the customer will be reimbursed for their deposit, without having to add a trip to the RVM to their daily routine. This consumer convenience would increase take-up of the scheme, increase recycling rates and be less susceptible to fraud, as each item would have a unique identifier that can’t easily be copied.
Flexible chips would also facilitate wider re-use and re-fill schemes, such as those being explored by many supermarkets. These schemes rely on packaging and containers being re-used potentially hundreds of times, but this process needs careful tracking to ensure food safety and durability.
A flexible chip can be used to track the container and monitor the number of cycles it has been through, allowing it to be removed from circulation once no longer fit for use and protecting food safety.
Tackling food waste
A further use case of our flexible semiconductors is in helping to tackle food waste. Our chips can be embedded into food packaging to monitor the freshness and moisture levels of the food inside.
This would allowing dynamic use-by dates and potentially even pricing, with food nearing its shelf-life being priced more competitively and therefore more likely to be eaten.
This would reduce food waste and provide consumers with more confidence around food safety.
Supporting the sector to deliver innovative sustainability solutions
And these are just some off the applications for flexible chips to embed sustainability in the things we use every day.
British technology and innovation has so often presented solutions to grand challenges, and we have the opportunity to do so again by harnessing new technologies developed here in the UK, like flexible semiconductors.
It is for Government now to create the conditions where these technologies can be put to best use. Our recent report, “How the UK can turbocharge its ambition to become a science and technology superpower” gave a series of recommendations on how this might be done.
Whether creating greater opportunities through public procurement, or providing targeted support for capital investment, creating the conditions for new and innovative tech to grow and thrive will help us to realise our sustainability and net zero ambitions, not just for the semiconductor industry, but for many sectors beyond.
1. The 7 Biggest Polluters by Industry in 2022 (eponline.com) (accessed 11/4/23)
2. Chasing Carbon: The Elusive Environmental Footprint of Computing (arxiv.org) (accessed 11/4/23)
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