Due to the successful efforts of a UMass Lowell research team, Transene Company, a manufacturer of advanced materials for the electronics industry, offers first-time semiconductor customers etching solutions that are free of toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) , harmful chemicals that do not break down over time.
“UMass Lowell TURI faculty, students and staff offer an innovative process and the resources and equipment to test the performance of various options that meet our customers’ requirements,” says Transene Company President Christopher Christuk. . “This collaboration accelerated our ability to manufacture and sell safer engraving products, helping companies in the electronics supply chain meet new regulatory requirements and protect health and the environment.”
Over the past few months, dozens of Transene customers in industries such as radio frequency and microwave chips, lasers, photonics, aerospace and defense have switched to the new safer PFAS-free etching products.
Motivated by customer demand for PFAS-free products, Christuk turned to the Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) and UMass Lowell for their help. TURI awarded Professor of Plastics Engineering Ramaswamy Nagarajan a grant to fund the research project, now in its second year.
One class of thousands of chemicals, PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” because they never fully break down in the environment. Found in a wide range of consumer and industrial products, including waterproof fabrics, food packaging, dental floss, and nonstick cookware, PFAS are associated with numerous health risks, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.
Like other toxic chemicals, PFAS have unique properties that can be difficult to replace. For the manufacture of computer chips, PFAS allow etching materials to be evenly distributed on the surfaces of semiconductor materials.
During the first year of the project, a team of students worked together to find viable alternatives to PFAS. Rashmi Sharma ’22, who earned a Ph.D. in polymer science, and plastics engineering MSc student Shreyas Shelke identified safer solutions and conducted experiments to compare the properties of alternatives to PFAS. They presented data every three weeks to Christuk, Nagarajan and TURI Research Manager Greg Morose.
“As soon as we found alternatives that worked, Christopher was quick to adopt the alternatives and start distributing the products to his customers,” says Sharma, who now works for Lam Research. “Finding safer alternatives isn’t always easy, but I enjoyed the hands-on, fast-paced nature of an industrial project.”
Students identified and tested various alternatives on surfaces such as silicon wafers, glass, aluminum, and chrome. The safest etching solutions had to meet strict criteria such as better dispersibility, higher surface outgassing, low foaming characteristics, residue-free performance and prevention of unwanted impurities.
“This research is a great help for students to gain experience in solving real-world problems, especially replacing something as persistent and toxic as PFAS,” says Nagarajan. “We train our students to think about how solutions impact the environment and health while constantly fighting for better, safer and more cost-effective alternatives.”
Morose says that the challenge of finding safer solutions that work as well as PFAS for multiple applications required collaboration across disciplines.
“The interdisciplinary research team was able to create this unique solution for industry by combining their expertise in chemistry, engineering, and public health,” he says.
TURI evaluated each of the viable alternatives to ensure that the company would not switch to another harmful solution.
“Our work with TURI was really important, because we didn’t want to be in a position of moving on to something that would later be seen as a sorry substitution,” says Christuk.
The second year of research is underway to find alternatives that meet specific criteria for more Transene clients. Doctor. Plastics engineering student Mohammad Bagheri, who previously worked in the polymer plastics industry, looks forward to collaborating with Shelke on these new challenges.
“I believe that greater cooperation between industry and academia leads to greater sustainability, added value and compatibility for both parties, which is why I decided to pursue my PhD,” says Bagheri. “As I gain experience working with reducing the use of PFAS, I will be able to consider careers related to a greener and healthier world.”
For Shelke, finding safer options for the manufacturer was gratifying.
“I’ve always been interested in green chemistry, so discovering a sustainable, non-toxic alternative to PFAS was very exciting for me,” he says.