The chip industry has another problem: its carbon footprint

(Bloomberg) – Day and night, hundreds of trucks arrive at the South Taiwan Science Park to pour concrete into what will be the world’s most advanced chip factory.

It’s a giant task that fits the outsized ambitions of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s preferred chipmaker. The estimated cost of installing TSMC will be $ 20 billion, roughly three times the cost of Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. gigafactory near Berlin.

And your carbon footprint will be up to scratch.

As life becomes increasingly digital, the demand for semiconductors increases, and chips are the key component of applications, from washing machines to artificial intelligence.

But all that computing power comes at a cost. Silicon Valley talks a lot about sustainability, but the reality is that chip manufacturing is a resource-intensive business.

In an October 2020 article, researchers led by Harvard University’s Udit Gupta used public sustainability reports from companies like TSMC, Intel Corp., and Apple Inc. to show that as computing becomes increasingly ubiquitous, “So does its environmental impact.”

Information and computing technology is expected to account for up to 20% of global energy demand by 2030, and hardware is responsible for more of that footprint than operating a system, they found. “Chip manufacturing, as opposed to hardware use and power consumption, accounts for the majority of carbon production,” the researchers concluded.

As the document’s title implies, “Chasing Carbon: The Elusive Environmental Footprint of Computing,” that’s a little-known and uncomfortable fact for governments pushing high-end chipmaking.

President Joe Biden’s push to establish state-of-the-art manufacturing plants in the US risks colliding with his eco-friendly agenda, while the European Union’s plans to develop chip production could put a strain on it. proves its commitment to be the first continent to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

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Semiconductor companies widely recognize that there is a carbon footprint problem, although they emphasize the actions they are taking to mitigate their emissions.

There is a paradox at play. The industry touts technological advancements that have allowed chips to become incredibly powerful while operating much more efficiently, dramatically reducing energy use over their lifespan. However, with billions of transistors now crammed onto a single chip, producing them is an increasingly complicated job.

It takes three to four months for a silicon disk to go through the multiple stages required to process it into the finished product. Wafers work their way through rows of machines that are layered over microscopic materials, burned in patterns, and scraped off unnecessary portions in procedures that are fully automated. Rinsing with large amounts of ultrapure water is a key component. And with each new generation of chips, more electricity is required, more water and more greenhouse gases are emitted.

The result is that the most advanced chipmakers now produce a larger carbon footprint than some of the traditionally more polluting industries. In 2019, for example, company disclosures show that Intel factories used more than three times as much water as Ford Motor Co. plants and created more than twice as much hazardous waste.

“The general trend is that energy consumption is increasing, water consumption is increasing as chips become more and more complex,” said Marie García Bardon, principal investigator at the Imec nanotechnology center in Belgium, who conducts a pioneering work in estimating the industry’s carbon footprint.

Gary Dickerson, CEO of California-based Applied Materials Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of chip equipment, said the responsibility lies with industry leaders to ensure that the advancements that make semiconductors possible are sustainable.

The world is “at the greatest inflection of our lives,” he said, contrasting developments with the industrial revolution fueled by coal and oil. “It had a positive and very significant impact on the world,” he said in an interview. “But the legacy is not that great from a climate change point of view.”

Original Note: The Chip Industry Has a Problem With Its Giant Carbon Footprint

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