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There has been a lot of emphasis on the semiconductor shortage lately. However, it’s also essential that ongoing conversations discuss sustainability in this industry. Such discussions should centre on water usage, in particular. Statistics show that fabrication facilities use 5 million gallons or more of ultrapure water per day.
It’s unsustainable to continue that usage rate for the long term. Plus, failing to make positive changes now could hurt a company’s bottom line. Many scientists warn that more frequent droughts are a likely consequence of climate change. Even if semiconductor facilities have enough water to use now, that may not be the case for much longer. Here are some practical ways to keep water usage under control.
Investigate Water-Recycling Options
Recycling water inside a semiconductor facility reduces how much the factory has to take from the outside. Some technologies also reduce the energy used in the process, creating a win-win situation.
Gradiant is a company with a technology it says can reclaim up to 98% of the water used in chip manufacturing. That improvement greatly reduces how much water a plant must take from the outside to keep operating.
Prakash Govindan is Gradiant’s chief operating officer. He said semiconductor wastewater treatment recycling is still highly underutilized across the industry as a whole. “Conventional treatment of wastewater at semiconductor plants had recycled anywhere from 40% to 70% of water used in their processes. Some manufacturers still only recycle 40% of the water they use.”
However, he believes his company’s technology will help increase that overall figure. That’s especially due to the work Gradiant has done over the past two years to assist semiconductor manufacturers with cutting water usage.
Consider Building or Acquiring a Wastewater Treatment Plant
Some efforts to improve water sustainability in the semiconductor sector will require significant investments. However, some business leaders believe they’ll help the company save money in the long run, even considering the high upfront costs. As a case in point, media reports indicated that decision-makers at chip manufacturer TMSC moved forward with building an industrial wastewater treatment plant at one of its sites. It will meet up to half of the company’s daily water needs.
The facility will be in Taiwan, where an ongoing drought has restricted water usage and forced TMSC officials to purchase water from elsewhere to reduce the amount used in the region where it operates. However, the on-site wastewater treatment facility will enable positive changes that will be even more substantial with time.
Lora Ho is senior vice president of Europe & Asia sales and chair of TSMC's corporate social responsibility committee. She said, “It will gradually ramp up the treatment capacity of industrial wastewater and by 2024 will be able to generate 67,000 tons of water daily that can go back into the chip-making process.”
If building a wastewater treatment plant is out of the question, another possibility may be to acquire an existing one from another company. However, that approach requires significant planning and research, especially because the ideal treatment plant would be close to where chip fabrication occurs.
Operating a company-owned water treatment plant could also lead to more cost-cutting. Statistics indicate that the industrial sector will consume more than 36% of all energy in the United States by 2025. However, they’ll use less power when water purification methods improve.
Implement Smart Sensors
Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can help identify leaks or process inefficiencies that could lead to a semiconductor facility using more water than necessary. Other sectors use connected sensors for improvements, too. For example, statistics show companies could save up to 40% over reactive maintenance costs by letting smart sensors predict upkeep needs.
Decision-makers should first consider applying IoT technologies to one or two of the most water-intensive processes, then think about scaling up later if the results warrant doing so. That way, they can establish a baseline for the amount of water typically needed and at which stages of fabrication.
The metrics provided by IoT sensors can help factory leaders avoid guesswork and assumptions about where room for improvement exists regarding water sustainability in the semiconductor industry. Seeing how the metrics get better over time can also help people stay motivated by showing them that implemented changes genuinely help.
On the other hand, the data collected from smart sensors can make people more aware of when changes do not have the desired effects. In such cases, they can feel more confident about making adjustments when necessary.
Install a Water-From-Air Generator
Water-from-air generators are relatively new technologies. They take water from the atmosphere so companies or households can use it. One company specializing in this tech reportedly has large machines that can produce from 30 to 3,000 gallons of water daily. However, many of its clients are households or people interested in technology that could supply water in emergencies.
That’s not the case in all instances, though. STMicroelectronics announced it would partner with Watergen, an Israeli company that uses water-from-air technology. More than 11,000 employees of the semiconductor company were introduced to the system through a virtual presentation.
Leaders at STMicroelectronics reportedly chose the GEN-M Pro model, which provides up to 900 litres of water per day. It’s a mobile unit that only needs an electrical outlet to operate. How well a water-from-air generator works depends on the humidity in the area. However, Watergen has optimized how its equipment works, and its website says the GEN-M Pro works in environments with 15% humidity or more.
Once more decision-makers start using this technology, others should follow suit. It’s not appropriate for every semiconductor plant’s operation, but it is at least worth considering.
Work Toward Earning a Water Sustainability Certification
Getting certified for sustainable water usage can also help semiconductor fabs use less water. That’s mainly because they encourage the improvement or elimination of water-intensive processes.
Earning a certification can be a practical way to show industry peers that a company’s leaders are serious about cutting water intake for the long term. It can also help employees realize conservation is everyone’s responsibility.
In 2020, Samsung’s Hwaseong campus, located in South Korea, became the first semiconductor facility to earn the Carbon Standard Trust for Water certification. The company received it due to its ongoing efforts to manage and conserve water usage.
Some of its efforts relate to semiconductor wastewater management, which allows the company to recycle significant percentages of water. The site conserved several hundred million gallons in 2019.
Certifications like this one can help semiconductor companies stand out among peers. Doing this can stimulate a larger and ongoing trend for increased sustainability in the semiconductor industry.
Switch to Dry Processes When Possible
Managers in semiconductor manufacturing facilities should scrutinize where and how water is used at every major manufacturing stage. Some steps have wet and dry processes available, so they should consider switching to dry ones when feasible.
For example, the etching step gives a chip conductive features without degrading its stability and structure. Semiconductor plants can either achieve etching through a physical, dry process or a chemical-based wet one.
Changing the steps of a process takes time and money. It also requires executive buy-in. However, this approach could be worth it in the long run if a company has made a strong commitment to conservation.
Additionally, switching to less water-intensive processes could save money, time and energy. That’s because many changes have more benefits than the one initially prioritized.
It’s not possible to get rid of water at every step of the semiconductor manufacturing process. However, taking a careful look at ways to reduce it can provide better visibility to make a factory more efficient and resilient.
Better Sustainability in the Semiconductor Industry Is Possible
There is no universally guaranteed way to reduce water consumption in semiconductor factories. Similarly, people who implement solutions should not expect overnight success. However, keeping those realities in mind and considering these suggestions sets them up for positive outcomes.