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How microchip makers are operating in Arizona's drought

Arizona Drought
Posted at 4:52 PM, Jan 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-25 10:40:32-05

PHOENIX — From computers to smartphones to vehicles, microchips are a part of every aspect of life and it takes a huge amount of water to make them.

Still, some of the world's largest chip makers like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) have made their home in the Valley, even as it grapples with the worst drought in 1,200 years.

Officials with the city of Phoenix tell ABC15 the city has more than enough water to support large water users and residents.

"We're never going to leverage the current population's water supply in favor of something new," said Cynthia Campbell, water resources management advisor for the city of Phoenix.

Campbell would not go into specifics about amounts but said large water users like TSMC have been accounted for in the city's growth plan.

When it comes to the semiconductor industry in particular, she said, "It's possible that you could have a situation in which you have a near zero discharge."

Meaning the water used can be recycled indefinitely.

TSMC said it won't reach that point until 2027 when its reclamation plant is expected to be completed, but the company told ABC15 in a statement that 65% of the water at the plant will be reclaimed waste and industrial water directly from its building. The other 35% will be fresh municipal water and is expected to be reused 2.8 times.

Intel, the semiconductor giant located in Chandler, said it recycles nearly all of its water.

The company has made semiconductors in the Valley for more than 40 years.

"We use ultra-pure water basically to clean the wafers," said Manager Aaron Blawn.

To achieve that, the reclamation plant on its Ocotillo campus cycles through to purify used water all day, every day.

A second plant that was built and designed by the company is run and used by the City of Chandler to treat both municipal and Intel water.

"You're talking about 13 million gallons that we can treat and send back to the site," Blawn said.

That's the amount that can be cleaned on a daily basis.

But annually, the four fabricators and the two that are currently under construction will use a lot more.

In 2021, the company reported withdrawing more than 12,000 megaliters or about 3.4 billion gallons of fresh water from the city of Chandler.

But Blawn said with current technology it is able to return 80% of the water back to the city.

"It does enable a higher quality of reclaimed water to the city, which then allows the city and Intel to continue to use that water back in the stream," he said.

Additional water lost to evaporation is made up through conservation programs along the rivers where the water supplies originate according to Blawn.

"One example on the Salt River is removing invasive plants that are actually absorbing water. Basically, restoring that water back to the Salt River," he said.

The company has 15 of these projects across Arizona.

"That's how we get back to what we call net positive water use," Blawn said. "So either we are returning it to the system or restoring what we lose in evaporation."