Over-Regulating Silicone Could Devastate the Consumer Electronics Market

As “Silicon Valley” has grown into a household term, it’s become easier to take for granted one of the most important family of chemicals used in electronics today: silicones. Silicones’ contributions to and use in the electronics industry are vast.

But now, regulatory threats to silicones have emerged abroad. Given their value, it’s dismaying to see some governments, most notably the European Union, crack down on silicone use based primarily on a flawed empirical assessment of its risks. Even as evidence mounts – from an analysis in Canada to another in Australia – showing silicones to be benign to both humans and the environment, Europe is still attempting to inappropriately regulate this invaluable substance. And even more concerning, the EU may once again attempt to export its evaluation of some silicone materials to the rest of the world.

One such pathway is the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which has 152 signatories including the U.S. An EU-pushed ban for the rest of the world could have international implications that could cripple the electronics market.

That’s because silicones have a ubiquitous presence in modern electronics, found in everything from GPS handsets and watches to laptops and smart TVs.

Silicones’ unique chemical properties make them an effective semiconductor, meaning that the material conducts electricity under some conditions and acts as an insulator under other conditions. This allows the flow of electrical current to be regulated, laying the foundation for digital information transfer. Transistors can be made by creating small impurities in silicones (through a process called “doping”) which enable electrons to move about. By combining it with other compounds, silicones’ electrical properties can be adjusted to suit a wide variety of applications.

Silicone materials are the fundamental basis of many types of electronics, including printed circuit boards, and integrated circuits — all of which make possible the consumer devices we use every day to communicate, conduct business, access entertainment, and so much more.

In addition to their rare properties as semiconductors, silicones are heavily relied upon by electronics manufacturers because they combine, like no other substances on earth, other useful chemical properties. They’re tough, durable, brindle, temperature-resistant, and high-performing in extreme conditions. Silicones are used in LED technology, for example, to minimize optical losses, increase brightness, and extend runtime.

Silicone compounds are also commonly used in electronic systems to seal and coat sensitive components, making them resistant to water and temperature. The use of silicones to protect fragile electronic systems has contributed to the enormous proliferation in the variety of consumer electronics and has allowed for the development of smaller, faster, and more powerful devices.

Over-regulating silicones could force electronics manufacturers to turn to less effective, more costly substitutes. While the ripple effects through the electronics industry (the global semiconductor market alone was valued at $305 billion in 2013) are impossible to precisely predict, the adverse impact on jobs, economic innovation, and consumer welfare could be significant.

Although alternatives are being explored, silicones are likely to remain central to the electronics industry for the foreseeable future. Without silicones, most of the devices you use daily simply wouldn’t exist or would exist at a dramatically poorer quality. It would be a serious mistake to jeopardize the countless benefits we derive from silicones based on unsound regulatory policy.

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