To recycle the wafers, IBM is using a process that removes transistor patterns embedded in them. The patterns usually prevent silicon wafers from being reused along with other silicon products because they represent closely guarded intellectual property.
As a result, the tech industry discards about three million silicon wafers per year, IBM estimated.
With the patterns removed, IBM can safely sell its used silicon wafers from its Burlington, Vt., plant to manufacturers that can turn them into solar cells or panels. IBM said it's also implementing the process at a plant in East Fishkill, N.Y.
The company said it plans to share details of the pattern removal process with other chip makers. The process was recently awarded the "Most Valuable Pollution Prevention Award" for 2007 from the environmental group The National Pollution Prevention Roundtable.
The program benefits the environment in two ways -- less waste is ending up in landfills, and the redirected silicon is helping to alleviate a materials shortage that is constraining the use of energy-saving solar cells.
"One of the challenges facing the solar industry is a severe shortage of silicon, which threatens to stall its rapid growth," said Charles Bai, chief financial officer at ReneSola, in a statement. ReneSola is one of China's fastest growing solar energy companies.
By using reclaimed silicon, solar cell manufacturers can save anywhere from between 30% and 90% of the energy they would have expended using new silicon materials, IBM said.
With the private sector facing increased calls for more eco-friendly business practices, a number of other tech manufacturers are stepping up their environmental programs.
Dell, for instance, recently unveiled a program under which it will handle PC recycling for small businesses for a nominal fee.