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In 1974, three scientists published a paper that would rock the US and global electronics industry 15 years later.
The paper laid out the chemical life cycle of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a family of compounds that had proven hugely useful in a vast range of applications, from refrigerants to non-stick coatings. Even better, CFCs evaporated and floated away after use.
But the paper suggested that CFCs weren’t, in fact, simply floating away harmlessly. They were building up in the upper stratosphere, opening a hole in the ozone layer that filters out most ultraviolet radiation from the sun. If the hole continued to grow, the scientists predicted, the human race would be slammed with increasing rates of cancer, immune disorders, blindness, and even starvation from crop damage.
By the late 1980s, nations had come together to commit to ridding the world of CFCs by 2000. But the electronics industry relied intimately on CFCs for cleaning every electrical connection at every step of the manufacturing process. No one had any idea how to make chips or circuit boards without them.
Yet over the next few years, the electronics industry would find a way to do exactly that. But it would require electronics companies — especially the big, fiercely competitive semiconductor manufacturers — to cooperate in a way they never had before and to almost literally turn the way they thought about environmental issues upside down.
The results would reverberate far beyond CFCs and would set the stage for today’s efforts to combat climate change. An important catalyst for that enormous shift was a dissertation by a Ph.D. student named Braden Allenby.
Beyond the end of the pipe
Allenby was a young attorney for AT&T in the late 1980s when he decided to get his doctorate in environmental science on the side. His dissertation, finished in 1992, addressed a problem that had been getting more and more attention in previous years: Large corporations often caused considerable environmental damage but were incentivized to resist efforts to be greener because doing so tended to be costly.
Companies had typically treated environmental considerations as an afterthought, relegating corrective action to “end of pipe” solutions — that is, trying to mitigate problems such as emissions and toxic chemicals after they were produced. “Executives saw environmental concerns as overhead,” said Allenby. “They didn’t think about them during planning and production. If you ended up with a bunch of barrels of toxic chemicals, then you got rid of the barrels. If you made the air or water dirty, then you tried to clean it up. There was no systemic approach to protecting the environment.”
Government regulators like OSHA and the EPA, and any number of environmental activist groups, were on industry’s case about the environment. “They were hitting the industry over the head with demands, without any concerns for the constraints that companies faced,” said Allenby. “That wasn’t going to bring about real change.”
What Allenby developed in his dissertation was a different approach to getting industry to do better, one that sought to integrate environmental concerns with the interests of the company. Coining terms like “industrial ecology” and “design for environment,” Allenby argued in his dissertation and in subsequent published papers that executives needed to see environmental protection as a strategic issue critical to the welfare of the company — and one that had to be worked on into all parts of the organization. “They needed to make a fundamental shift from applying environmental solutions at the end of the pipe to embedding them in design, process development, and every aspect of manufacturing, including the design of factories,” he explained.
Of course, thoughtful dissertations rarely lead to large-scale corporate change. But in his day job as an AT&T attorney, Allenby happened to be in a critical time and place. AT&T was a leader in the electronics industry, and CFCs were a huge threat, one that could lead to enormous fines and even get companies shut down if not solved. Nor was this a problem that could be fixed at the end of the pipe, because for CFCs, the end of the pipe was 30 miles above the Earth.
If there had ever been a time for a corporation to think strategically and broadly about the environment, this was it. And Allenby had executives’ ears. AT&T became the first major company in the electronics industry to step up. By 1992, it had set up a formal collaboration with one of its direct rivals, Northern Telecom, and invited the EPA to join in as well in order to pool technical resources to figure out how electronics could be manufactured without CFCs. The collaboration studied more than 50 potential replacements. None of them could match CFCs for cleaning power without posing any risk of poisoning people or exploding, but it was a start.
A common goal
The rest of the industry soon proved ready to jump in, and Allenby’s instigation and organizing led to the founding of the Industry Cooperative for Ozone Layer Protection, or ICOLP, for which Allenby served as chief counsel. Putting all concerns about proprietary processes and trade secrets aside, the group — which included IBM, TI, HP, Intel, and Honeywell — brought in a range of engineers to look at everything from new ways of designing circuit boards to new ways of bonding connections. . Soon, Ford, Boeing, General Electric, Motorola, Toshiba, and other industrial giants signed on.
The goal was to come up with processes that would lower the need for ultraclean surfaces so that CFC alternatives with less cleaning power might do the trick. Even environmental activist groups were invited to pitch in to the effort. “Competition and antagonism were suspended,” said Allenby. “Everyone was working towards a common goal.”
Within a few years, ICOLP had produced a range of techniques and identified a number of CFC alternatives that filled the bill in different electronics manufacturing applications, at different stages of the process, and with different types of materials. Those solutions were not only freely shared with all of the industry, including companies that had nothing to do with ICOLP, but they were distributed to other industries and governments around the world.
The group even went on to find ways to mitigate another environmental problem hanging over the electronics industry’s head: the toxicity of lead solder, used ubiquitously in the industry. While some lead solder is still used today, the group helped develop a way to use nitrogen gas that allowed lead alternatives such as bismuth and silver to work in many soldering applications.
The lessons from ICOLP have enormous significance today. That’s because industries face the far more complex challenge of reducing carbon emissions to try to halt climate change. “The skills and expertise to solve the problems are in place today,” said Allenby, now a professor in sustainable engineering at Arizona State University. “And so is the understanding that solutions will have to come from shared efforts, not proprietary approaches.”
David H. Freedman is a Boston-based science writer. His articles appear in The Atlantic, Newsweek, Discover, Marker by Medium, and Wired, among many other publications. He is the author of five books, the most recent being “Wrong,” about the failure of expertise.