Taiwanese Chipmakers Told to Cut Water Usage Due to Ongoing Shortages

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Chip manufacturing uses a lot of water, especially EUV. That’s proving to be problematic in Taiwan, where foundries like TSMC have been ordered to cut their water usage due to severe drought. The restrictions could exacerbate the ongoing chip shortage.

The problem is typhoons, or rather, the complete lack of them last year. Not a single storm hit the country directly, according to Reuters. Wikipedia states that multiple 2020 storms “affected” Taiwan, so we’re guessing that the island was brushed by multiple storms but that none made landfall and passed directly  over the island. The result has been a severe drop in available water, with multiple reservoirs dropping below 20 percent. Very little rain is expected in the next few months. Taiwan Economy Minister Wang Mei-hua has said that the Taiwanese government has “planned for the worst,” and that it hopes chip manufacturers can reduce water usage by 7-11 percent.

There is some good news in all this. While chip manufacturing uses tremendous amounts of water, most of that water is easily recycled. When I toured GlobalFoundries a few years ago, the company made much of the fact that the water it returned to the ecosystem after fab utilization was markedly cleaner than it had been at the intake pipe. Fabs require ultra-purified water for immersion lithography and EUV requires large amounts for cooling the chip manufacturing equipment itself.

TSMC’s Fab 5 at Hsinchu Science Park, Taiwan. Image Credit: Peellden, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Data from 2010 suggests that a 200W EUV system would require 1,600 liters of water per minute, compared with 75 liters/minute for a conventional DUV machine. Take those figures with a grain of salt, since improving EUV efficiency has long been a major goal of OEMs. Even if you assume more efficient production has cut the water usage for EUV in half, however, it’s still more than 10x larger than the water requirements for DUV. TSMC may not be doing much EUV manufacturing at the moment, but every EUV customer presumably accounts for far more water than anyone still building with older 193nm excimer lasers. TSMC’s 5nm customers are all using EUV, but so far as we know, most 7nm customers and everyone building at >7nm are all still on DUV.

TSMC has begun trucking water in from other sources to meet demand and there has been no drop in production yet. It is not clear if the company is drawing on local water reserves, which may also become depleted, or if it’s bringing in water from an off-island source. Water isn’t especially efficient to transport. TSMC may be able to contract for the total amount it needs, but if the difference between what the company can withdraw from its own pipes and what it has to truck in gets big enough, chip prices could start rising as a result.

This, at least, is not yet guaranteed to further slow chip production — but it definitely could, especially if Taiwan has an abnormally dry rainy season.

Image Credit: Laura Ockel/ Unsplash

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