Planned fabs boost ultrapure water demand, a test for recycling tech

Chip fabs are being planned for drought-stricken southwestern states in the U.S., which is ironic since massive fabs require millions of gallons of pure water every day  to make chips.

Clean water is used to rinse away residual chemicals used in making chips, displays, photovoltaics and other devices. Some experts estimate it takes 2 million to 4 million gallons of ultrapure water a day per fab to cool equipment and clean wafers.

 At the same time new fabs are being proposed , governments are beginning to mandate anew the efficient management of water. In August, federal authorities declared a shortage of water on the Colorado River for the first time, leading to water cuts in several states on Jan. 1. California announced on Nov. 30 a move toward imposing fines on residents and businesses that use excessive amounts of water because of a drought emergency.

Water shortages have been a concern for many western states for decades, ushering in a host of wastewater recovery and re-use technologies, including for the semiconductor sector.

One company, Gradiant, claims it can recover and reuse 98% of wastewater produced in the processing of chips.  The Boston-based company was founded at MIT in 2013 and has grown to more than 200 employees. It  boasts recent customer wins in Asia Pacific where rapid industrialization has driven demand for clean water.  It recently won a contract for desalination plants in the Antarctic and holds a patent for such work.

Schlumberger New Energy, an energy technology provider, recently said it is collaborating with Gradiant, with one Schlumberger executive calling its water technology “game-changing.”

Gradiant announced Nov. 17 it received $100 million in Series C funding from Schlumberger and Warburg Pincus, bringing its funding to $200 million.  Revenues tripled in 2021 over the prior year, and it recently acquired Sigma Water in Malaysia and CRS Water in Australila.

Anurage Bajpayee, co-founder and CEO, said the common theme among its customers is “they consume and treat incredible amounts of water for mission-critical operations.”  They face pressure to lead sustainable development efforts by maximizing water reuse and recovery and minimizing discharges, he said in a statement.

Fab recycling

Chip companies are aware of their impact on water resources. Intel has pledged to restore and return more freshwater than it uses by 2030, according to its latest Corporate Responsibility Report.

The chip giant is planning to spend $20 billion to build two new chip factories in Chandler, Arizona, expanding its operations there.  In 2020, the company said it recycled 95 % of the freshwater it used in Arizona.  A brine reduction facility based on a partnership with Chandler recycles 2.5 million gallons of Intel’s wastewater each day to bring it back to drinking standard.   

Intel also operates a water recycling center at its Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro, Oregon, one of the largest of its kind.

TSMC is planning a new $12 billion fab near Phoenix while NXP and Microchip already have fabs in the state.  Samsung recently announced plans for a $17 billion chip plant near Austin, Texas.   Intel and other companies currently operate chip design facilities in California where the political environment, partly because of water restrictions, has not favored massive new fabs.

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