Intel plant replenishes aquifer for thirsty Arizona city

Intel’s Chandler manufacturing operations turns tap water into an ultra-pure form to rinse the wafers it makes. Image:

Most people don’t associate Intel Corp. (INTC), the world’s largest semiconductor maker, with water.

Yet each day, 2 million gallons of industrial wastewater — enough to fill at least 30,000 bathtubs — are piped from Intel plants in Chandler, Arizona, to a facility a mile away where it’s treated, then returned to an underground aquifer. Intel, the city’s largest employer, recycles about 60 percent of its water and is expanding the treatment facilities and increasing the amount it reuses as the company finishes a $5 billion plant that will build more efficient computer chips.

For most manufacturers, the leftover effluent or concentrated dissolved salts that result from making chips often ends up in a sewer. Intel cleans its supply to drinking-quality standards and helps replenish groundwater beneath the city 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Phoenix.

In a Sonoran desert community that receives 9 inches (23 centimeters) of rainfall a year on average compared with 39 inches for the rest of the U.S, “those millions of gallons of water have a second life,” Christine Mackay, Chandler’s economic development director, said in a phone interview.

Replenished aquifers make more water available for energy and electricity production forecast to double in 25 years and aids a parched metropolitan area such as Phoenix, which set a single-day water-use record on June 30 with 420 million gallons.

Using less matters in a region facing the worst 14-year drought period in 100 years. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water in 17 Western states including Arizona, on Aug. 16 announced plans for its first water-release reduction from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, Las Vegas’s main water source.

The 9.1 percent cutback over the next year raises the potential for water shortages in Arizona and Nevada and the likelihood of less hydroelectric power generation at Glen Canyon Dam in Lake Powell and the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead.

Desert resource

Shrinking downstream deliveries amid a drought also fans water-supply concerns. “You are in the middle of the desert so there is a huge demand,” Ron Feathers, a Chandler employee and superintendent of the water-treatment plant, said during a facility tour.

While good for the globe, water sustainability efforts aren’t exclusive to Intel. Beverage companies such as PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) and brewers including SABMiller Plc (SAB) that need reliable water sources have for years worked to ensure supplies.

Intel’s Chandler manufacturing operations — it also has U.S. chipmaking facilities in Hillsboro, Oregon, and Rio Rancho, New Mexico — use 9 million gallons (34 million liters) of water daily. The company turns tap water into an ultra-pure form to rinse the wafers it makes. As a result of measures to maximize water-use efficiency, 5 million gallons of this is reused or reclaimed water purchased back from Chandler.

Replenish aquifer

The water-treatment facility, completed in 1996, is operated by Chandler and costs $2.4 million annually to run. Santa Clara, California-based Intel is billed monthly for the costs.

As of July, 5.2 billion gallons had been sent from the plant to the aquifer for Chandler’s use, Intel said. The company is spending more than $200 million to upgrade and expand the reverse-osmosis and water-reclamation facilities to handle more manufacturing at the plant. Intel and the city plan to increase the water recovery rate at the facilities to 90 percent.

Clean water hasn’t always been associated with an industry that used to dispose of chemicals underground, a practice that in some cases caused environmental damage.

“We have some of the largest Superfund sites in the country because of the semiconductor industry,” said Jim McGregor, founder of Phoenix-based Tirias Research. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste at Superfund sites.

Intel discovered chemical contamination in 1981 at a facility in Mountain View, California, after solvents leaked from an underground storage tank.

Cleanups funded

Since then, Intel and other manufacturers have invested tens of millions of dollars funding cleanups. By 1986, all site source areas at the Mountain View facility had been removed and groundwater extraction and treatment systems installed, Intel said.

Storing chemicals underground is “a process we stopped decades ago,” said Christine Dotts, an Intel spokeswoman.

McGregor, who worked at Intel for three years, said the semiconductor industry “has been, since the 1980s, a very environmentally conscious industry.”

Proof of that may be Intel’s Chandler operations, which use reverse-osmosis to clean the water. “RO trains” contain thin-film composite, semi-permeable membranes that remove dissolved salts.

Fab 42

The facility being upgraded and expanded to accommodate water from Intel’s fourth fabrication site is to be completed later this year. The Fab 42 microprocessor manufacturing site is a $5 billion investment to build a more powerful chip.

“It will double the flow here and it would overwhelm our capacity” without the water-treatment expansion, Feathers said.

The treatment facility will allow the company to recover more water using a brine concentrator and higher pressure to process the effluent. Much of the water recovered in the new facility will return to Intel rather than the aquifer, reducing its daily intake requirements from the city’s supply, he said.

Intel, operating in Chandler since 1979, employs 11,000 people, three times the city’s next largest employer, Bank of America Corp.

Named for Arizona’s first veterinary surgeon, Chandler has more than doubled in population since 1990 to 245,000. The city is also home to facilities owned by Motorola Solutions Inc. and Avnet Inc. (AVT)

Intel and the city inked another agreement ahead of this expansion in which the company would help secure and pay for added water rights, said Doug Toy, Chandler’s Water Regulatory Affairs manager. It’s also paying for upgrades to the city’s wastewater-treatment plant.

Intel has “been a very good partner,” Toy said. “They are part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

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