Wet woes for the semiconductor industry

According to the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center, a large semiconductor manufacturing fab may use up to 6.7 million gallons of water a day, an amount that could serve a city with a population of 60,000. Some in the industry believe that the future water demands of the semiconductor industry could have a detrimental effect on the growth of the industry.

By Caryn Sykes, Industry Analyst, Environmental Health & Safety, United States

The use of water in semiconductor manufacturing has become one of the most expensive, and resource intensive parts of the manufacturing process. Not only does the manufacturing process require large volumes of water, the highly sensitive nature of the manufacturing process necessitates a clean environment, and the use of water treated to ultrapure standards. According to the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center, a large semiconductor manufacturing fab may use up to 6.7 million gallons of water a day, an amount that could serve a city with a population of 60,000. Some in the industry believe that the future water demands of the semiconductor industry could have a detrimental effect on the growth of the industry.

The increasing importance of technology in our everyday lives is expected to continue to increase the demand for products requiring semiconductors. As the demand for semiconductors increases, semiconductor manufacturers are expected to find more efficient ways to put out higher volumes of semiconductor chips. One approach is the expected construction and use of 300mm fabs. However, the price of higher and more efficient production of semiconductor chips is expected to increase the volume of ultrapure water needed in these facilities. According to the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center, for every dollar spent to acquire water for the fab, an additional 30 dollars is spent to use that water in semiconductor production. Approximately two-thirds of that money is to treat the water to ultrapure levels for use, and the remaining 10 dollars is to treat and dispose of wastewater. Some municipal sources are strained by the needs of semiconductor facilities, both in terms of providing water, and treating wastewater from these facilities. As demand for water increases, the way in which the industry deals with its use of water is going to become increasingly important, both to the fabs themselves, and the communities around them.

Some ways in which manufacturers have addressed the water problem include recycling water, reusing water for several processes, and reducing use of water. Decreasing the amount of water needed in the semiconductor process not only reduces water costs, but also energy costs for running pumps and treatment systems. Additionally, reduction in the use of water decreases the amount of wastewater that must be treated before it is discharged.

The current slowdown of the economy may temporarily reduce the demand for products requiring semiconductors, and thus the level of semiconductor manufacturing and water needed by the industry. However, like past low points in the semiconductor industry, demand is expected to rise again, and production increase, thus requiring high volumes of water. However, as the availability of water and energy supplies tightens, dealing with water usage in manufacturing is going to become one of the biggest challenges for semiconductor producers. Companies that offer ways to reduce water consumption for the semiconductor industry are going to have many opportunities in the semiconductor market as the industry attempts to address these issues.

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