The water-intensive semiconductor industry has been experiencing a surge in demand for chips as nations and businesses accelerate their digitalisation strategies. This, in turn, will require increased water recycling and even greater quantities of ultra-pure water. Prakash Govindan, COO of Gradiant, elaborates on the growing importance for the water-intensive semiconductor industry to embrace sustainability in the supply chain.
Asia-Pacific plays a critical role in the global supply chain as it hosts over 40% of the world’s manufacturing. Given the importance of the region, the effects of environmental impacts are heightened – as are the economic and social benefits that can be recognised with the adoption of sustainable practices. This is compounded by the region’s rapid industrialisation and large population base, where responsible management practices are even more essential to balance economic growth and quality of life.
In early 2021, the Singapore government unveiled the Singapore Green Plan 2030, aimed at moving the city-state towards fulfilling its green aspirations. An important aspect of the Green Plan is the use of circular economy models to maximise the lifecycle of natural resources, allowing them to be used many times over to reduce the overall volume of waste produced.
Key beneficiaries of circular economy models are water-intensive industries, which consume valuable freshwater from an already water- stressed regions. By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. Freshwater scarcity poses a major threat to economic growth, water security, and sustainability for our future generations. The challenge of providing adequate and safe drinking water is further complicated by climate change and the pressures of economic development. These stresses drive the need to make the most out of our limited water supplies.
WATER AS A CRITICAL RESOURCE
The recovery and reuse of wastewater with advanced treatment technologies have become a growing trend to achieve water sustainability. Essential industries such as semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and food and beverage rank among the world’s most water-intensive sectors. A large semiconductor manufacturing facility may require up to 5 million gallons of municipal water per day, using water to produce silicon wafers or cool down equipment – this is equivalent to the daily domestic water consumption of a city with a population of 136,000. The manufacture of one 300mm integrated circuit, alone, will require 2,200 gallons of water. Recent droughts in Taiwan and Arizona, two major areas for semiconductor manufacturing, have threatened global supply chains, operational continuity, and expansion plans.
The World Bank estimates that 80% of all wastewater is disposed of without treatment. Without proper treatment and disposal, industrial wastewater can pollute our freshwater resources. This not only renders them unfit for reuse and consumption but also disrupts the delicate marine ecosystems that can have far-reaching impacts on the natural environment and the communities that rely on these ecosystems for the livelihoods.
REDUCING WASTEWATER AND TRANSFORMING IT INTO A RESOURCE STREAM
Technological advancements in water treatment now allow industries to recover and reuse wastewater, remove contaminants, and even reclaim valuable products from waste streams. In recent years, the industry has developed advanced treatment processes capable of delivering cost-effective results at lower energy and chemical requirements. Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) is a rapidly growing approach where almost all water is recovered and reused, thereby minimising discharge to the environment and freshwater withdrawals. Valuable minerals that would have otherwise been disposed of as waste are recovered for beneficial reuse. This produces purified recycled water and recovered minerals that could be used for other industrial or economic benefits – which creates a continuous resource loop, or a circular economy.
As freshwater resources become scarce, economies worldwide are becoming more stringent on wastewater quality and quantity, leading to industries’ increased adoption of ZLD solutions. Reaffirming the growing importance of wastewater management amid the COVID-19 pandemic, industry research has forecasted the global water reuse market to grow at a CAGR of 12.2% from 2022-2027, reaching US$38 billion by 2027. Asia-Pacific will lead this growth, mainly due to population growth, social and economic development, and increasingly stringent environmental regulations.
ENABLING THE SEMICONDUCTOR SECTOR TO MEET SUSTAINABILITY GOALS
Brand owners and manufacturers increasingly face operational continuity, financial and social pressures to drive sustainability in the supply chain. New technologies are helping us to find better ways to use our limited resources through the product lifecycle – from the mining of raw materials through manufacturing and disposal. Some examples of sustainable solutions in the cleantech water sector are water reuse, ZLD, targeted treatment of contaminants, and resource recovery. Wastes can be reduced or engineered out from the manufacturing process – water consumption and wastes are minimised, and whenever possible, recovered and reused for other beneficial purposes. There is an urgent need today for improved sustainability in the supply chain of wafer fabrication and semiconductor manufacturing.
We are experiencing a global shortage of the semiconductors required to control everything from automobiles to smartphones to appliances. The semiconductor market is forecasted to grow by 17.3% in 2021, on top of the 10.8% growth in 202. Global sales reached $439 billion in 2020 – fuelled by the spike in demand for computers and electronics devices. At this same time of unprecedented demand, severe droughts in major semiconductor manufacturing areas are threatening the operational continuity and expansion plans of brand owners and foundries.
Eleven of the top 14 semiconductor manufacturing plants in the world are in Asia-Pacific, accounting for more than 75% of globally industry sales. Semiconductors are now considered a strategic asset in global trade policy and self-sufficiency. In 2015, China published its “Made in China Plan”, which established goals of 70% self-sufficiency in semiconductors by 2025. Countries with access to sufficient supplies of semiconductors will be able to meet the massive amounts of processing power required to advance their artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning innovation – those without, will not.
Water is fundamental to the manufacture of semiconductors. The semiconductors sector is one of the largest water-consuming industrial users in Singapore – requiring about 11% of Singapore’s total non-domestic water demand. Much of this water is ultrapure water that is thousands of times purer than drinking water – so clean, that it’s regarded as an industrial solvent. Figure 2 shows a typical ultrapure water system process used in semiconductor manufacturing.
Semiconductor manufacturers are continuously seeking opportunities to minimise water footprint and treat-down wastewater through sustainable water management practices, such as water reuse, ZLD, targeted treatment, and resource recovery. These manufacturers adopt sustainable operations by minimising the amount of freshwater consumed in the production process, reducing the volume of wastewater discharge or disposed to the environment, and even segregating effluent streams for optimised treatment and reuse.
Figure 3 shows the water recycling potential in a wafer fabrication and semiconductor plant as separated by waste streams. In water recycling applications, the wastewater that would have been otherwise discharged is reduced in volume and recycled to the beginning of the semiconductor manufacturing process– facilities can achieve overall recoveries of up to 98% using the latest membrane desalination technologies. Furthermore, wastewater streams in the manufacturing process are being strategically separated and treated (see Fig. 4) to only the required levels and not beyond, and beneficially reused in the upstream manufacturing processes, resulting in an overall net positive reduction in the facility’s freshwater withdrawals.
A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
Asia-Pacific has realised significant growth in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments, with the pandemic having highlighted how catastrophic events such as climate change could impact investment returns. According to MSCI, around 79% of investors in Asia-Pacific increased ESG investment in response to COVID-19, while 57% of the region’s investors expect to have incorporated ESG issues into their investment analysis and decision-making processes by the end of 2021.
Governments around the world have set ambitious goals and outlined steps to achieve a zero-waste, sustainable future. The regulatory environment around wastewater management has also evolved in major Asian markets to keep pace with changing public sentiments, evidenced by Singapore’s Green Plan 2030. Moving ahead, more can still be done to raise awareness on the untapped potential of wastewater as a resource stream, and on the capabilities of advanced treatment technologies to minimise environmental impact and deliver economic and social value.
An effective approach to accelerate this change is stronger public-private collaborations to enable governments to leverage expertise from the private sector and help guide the development of industry regulations for sustainable growth. On the technology front, government recognition and support will also help to access and leverage the entrepreneurial innovation potential of the private sector.
Gradiant is a global solutions provider and developer of cleantech water projects for advanced water and wastewater treatment, with focus on water reuse, industrial wastewater, resource recovery, and zero liquid discharge. Gradiant’s end-to-end solutions and technology expertise enable sustainable and cost-effective treatment of the world’s most important water challenges. With a full-suite of robust technologies, powered by the top minds in water, Gradiant serves its clients’ mission-critical operations in the world’s essential industries. Today, with more than 400 employees, Gradiant serves its clients around the world from its headquarters in Boston and Singapore, and offices across 10 countries. Gradiant creates new possibilities for water.