Winning Chip War Requires Abundant Water

Winning Chip War Requires Abundant Water

The Thirsty Chip Industry: How Water Is Becoming a Key Resource

The semiconductor industry, known for its complex chip fabrication plants, or fabs, is experiencing a period of rapid growth and expansion. In response, water, an often overlooked resource in the manufacturing process, is becoming a crucial ingredient in the industry’s success. As chip companies aim to take advantage of government initiatives to boost national chip manufacturing, they are also constructing new water processing facilities alongside their fabs. This trend highlights the importance of water supply and infrastructure for local communities hosting chip plants.

The sheer volume of water required in chip manufacturing is staggering. According to the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), a single fab can use millions of gallons of water in a single day. This is equivalent to the water consumption of a small city over the course of a year. While chip fabs still use far less water than sectors like agriculture and power generation, the industry’s demand for water is not without its challenges.

Water plays a critical role in the semiconductor manufacturing process, particularly in keeping silicon wafers clean and free from contamination. The need for ultrapure water, with significantly low conductivity, arises from the necessity to remove even the tiniest specks of dust or debris. In a chip fab, ultrapure water is used to clean silicon wafers throughout the manufacturing process. Standard drinking water, which is not pure enough for chip fabrication, typically has a purity level of 100 to 800 microsiemens per centimeter, whereas ultrapure water demands a level of less than 0.055 microsiemens per centimeter.

To achieve ultrapure water, chip manufacturers employ a multistep process that removes various contaminants, including microbes, particles, and salt ions. Reverse osmosis, a technique utilized in desalination plants, is one of the methods used to achieve ultrapure water. Chip fabs also utilize less-pure water for cooling manufacturing equipment. However, with the crucial role water plays in chip manufacturing, recovering and reusing wastewater has become a priority for the industry to reduce their reliance on local water supplies.

The recycling and treatment of wastewater within fabs vary between companies and facilities. Chipmakers have developed sophisticated systems to separate and treat different components of wastewater. For instance, they segregate wastewater into multiple categories, depending on the nature of the contaminants present. This advanced approach allows chip manufacturers to determine the best course of action for each type of wastewater, such as reuse, routing to sewer systems, or cleaning and redirecting to cooling towers.

To address the growing demand for water in chip manufacturing, chipmakers are investing in improving filtration and cleaning processes to increase water reuse. Companies like Intel and Micron have set ambitious water conservation targets, aiming for net positive water use and significant water recovery rates by 2030. Realizing the importance of water in their operations, chip manufacturers are exploring sustainable water sources, such as desalination and rainwater harvesting. These initiatives seek to reduce the industry’s impact on local water systems and promote water conservation.

The expansion of the chip industry has not gone unnoticed by local communities and policymakers. As chip fabs are established in new areas, city officials and water resource staff are collaborating to ensure the industry’s water demands align with the community’s needs. In some instances, cities are investing in new water infrastructure and upgrading water processing facilities to support the arrival of chip plants. Regions like Columbus, Ohio, and Phoenix, Arizona, are taking proactive measures to secure their water supplies and even explore innovative methods like wastewater upcycling.

In conclusion, water has emerged as a critical resource in the chip manufacturing process. The semiconductor industry’s quest for ultrapure water presents challenges and opportunities for local communities. As the industry expands, it is crucial for cities and regions to prepare their water systems and infrastructure to accommodate the arrival of chip fabs. With sustainable practices and water conservation efforts, the chip industry can ensure a harmonious relationship with local communities while driving technological advancements and economic growth.