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Impax AM: More chips will require more water

The growth in semiconductor manufacturing is going to require a lot of water and solutions to manage its waste, according to Impax portfolio manager Justin Winter.
Purification water fountain in Kyoto, Japan with liquid running from spout faucet

The boom in chipmaking capacity globally is going to require large volumes of water, and solutions to reduce its waste. 

This is according to Justin Winter, portfolio manager of Impax Asset Management, who points out that the high-tech industries critical for the modern economy are very thirsty processes.

Semiconductor manufacturing for example, uses an estimated 1.2m megalitres of water per year; data centres – critical for cloud computing and filled with server racks – also require huge amounts water for liquid cooling.

With climate change increasing the intensity of rainfall and storms, these same data centres will require innovative stormwater management solutions to prevent flooding.

Winter said: “Everything that you can see around you, water has been used to make that. Semiconductors, textiles, the laminate on your table – water is used everywhere for the economy.”

But as investment into new semiconductor fabrication plants soars to meet growing demand for compute, as countries seek to onshore their chip industries, and as chips get ever more complex and tinier, so there will be a greater requirement for more water.

“As the chip sizes have come down, the water intensity of producing those chips actually gets higher,” Winter explained.

Large volumes of ultra-pure water are necessary to clean the silicon wafers placed into chips and maintain a clean environment during chip production.

“So you need to treat the water, then you also need to be able to move it around, requiring pipes and fittings with very high specifications,” Winter said.

Water shortages

To make things more complicated, Winter pointed out that a lot of the semiconducting manufacturing is in locations where there are shortages of water.

This means that water reuse solutions are critical, and a key area of growth that Winter is monitoring for the BNP Paribas Aqua strategy, managed by Impax Asset Management.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is planning to construct a water recycling plant at its new Arizona fabrication (fab) plant — which is suffering from water shortages after droughts in the Colorado river — and has ambitions to increase its rate of water reuse by over 30%. South Korean peer SK Hynix also aims to reuse three times more water in 2030 compared to 2019.

To do this, firms are increasingly separating their wastewater streams for bespoke treatment methods – TSMC for example splits effluent streams into 38 categories requiring 13 targeted wastewater treatment trains.

Winter said: “More rigorous treatment creates opportunities for comprehensive wastewater monitoring and digital analytics solutions that can target specific components, as well as sensors that can detect the presence of specific ions.”

“As global semiconductor production rises, specialist solutions that enable greater water recycling within fabs will be needed to meet the industry’s thirst for operational resilience and lower costs.”

He added: “Water is used everywhere in the economy; water is going to continue to be used forever – and there are lots of solutions that are needed to make that use more sustainable.”

Part of the Mark Allen Group.