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Semiconductor Industry Scrambles for Alternatives as 3M Plans Coolant Phase-Out by 2025

In the wake of 3M’s announcement to cease production of ‘coolant’ by 2025 due to environmental regulations such as those implemented by the European Union, the semiconductor industry is fervently searching for viable substitutes. Coolant is a crucial material employed as cooling water during the semiconductor etching process. With 3M responsible for a significant portion of the global supply, major semiconductor manufacturers and partners have been actively exploring new materials since last year. Some potential substitutes have already sold out for the year, reflecting the urgency of the situation.

On April 19, industry sources reported that South Korean semiconductor device producers and chiller equipment manufacturers are diligently seeking coolant alternatives. Companies like Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix have relied on 3M’s products, which constitute 80-90% of the world’s coolant supply.

Environmental regulations targeting perfluorinated compounds (PFAS), the primary raw material for existing coolants, have complicated matters. PFAS are notorious pollutants and hazardous chemicals. In the first half of the previous year, the Belgian government ordered the closure of a 3M coolant plant due to environmental pollution concerns.

Although 3M initially attempted to restart the plant, the company ultimately announced the suspension of PFAS production by 2025’s end. With the EU and the US considering expanding PFAS regulations, industry sources predict that PFAS-based coolants will be phased out in the medium to long term.

An industry source remarked on the growing demand for substitutes, noting that coolant orders from Solvay in Belgium and Chinese companies have surged. Presently, the industry is focusing on hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) as potential alternatives. South Korean chiller equipment producers like FST, GST, and Unisem are also evaluating these materials and exploring related technology development. However, HFO’s higher cost and CO2’s reduced stability in high-temperature settings pose challenges.

Consequently, silicone-based oil coolants have recently gained attention as a promising alternative. These coolants are non-volatile, reducing contamination risks and extending service life, and they have a broad temperature range of application. 3M, Solvay, and Germany’s Hoover are currently developing and supplying silicone-based coolants, with some commercialization already underway. In South Korea, major semiconductor firms have begun implementing silicone-based coolants in research labs and select production lines.

Following 3M’s announcement, demand for silicone-based coolant has surged, with some companies, such as Solvay, having already sold their entire supply for the year. Despite its potential, silicone-based oil coolants face numerous obstacles to widespread adoption, including difficulties in integrating them into large equipment and slow temperature change rates. An industry source disclosed that tests to address these issues are being conducted primarily by major semiconductor companies, but for now, supplies remain limited.

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