Monday, January 1, 2024

"The green revolution runs on chips–but there is no good way to make the fragile semiconductors ecosystem sustainable in the short term"

From Fortune, December 26:

There is renewed attention on the sustainability of semiconductors. Chorus has been building in recent years to improve the sustainability of chip manufacturing and usage. In 2022, COP27 saw the creation of a Semiconductor Climate Consortium with 60 founding members pledging to reduce emissions to 0% by 2050.

It is understandable why chips would be a target. They are ubiquitous and their number and usage will just keep increasing. Most stages of their complex supply chain–from the extraction of raw materials to transportation of finished goods to the processing, heating, and cooling required in production, to recycling–produce significant emissions.

Silicon, the basic material used to build chips, is famously created in furnaces from sand or quartz by burning a mixture of coal and wood chips. Energy and water needs for the industry to function are high–and keep increasing. The manufacturing of advanced 3nm chips may consume almost 8 billion kilowatt-hours annually. In some cases, the impact on communities has been visible. TSMC, the world’s largest chip manufacturer, consumes 6% of Taiwan’s electricity and 10% of its water, leading to water shortages. And the industry’s contaminants in the Bay Area have rendered a number of sites toxic.

Despite this, governments and semiconductor companies must be careful about how they approach chip sustainability at this time. We just went through a chip shortage that brought the economies to their knees. The shortage also brought to the fore the potential economic and national security benefits of increasing and localizing chip production. The CHIPS and Science Act passed earlier this year in the U.S. has generated momentum behind chip manufacturing–and sustainability issues must be addressed in a way that does not slow this momentum.

This won’t have as much cost as one may imagine. Most of the current focus is on emissions–and the chip industry produces only 0.1 to 0.2% of global carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. This is small when considering the outsized economic impact they produce.

Chips serve as key enablers for smart grids, the transition to renewables, intelligent and electric transportation, low carbon footprint logistics and supply chains, video conferencing, smart agriculture, drug discovery, and energy-efficient manufacturing, each helping make progress toward global sustainability goals. The economic impact of chips also helps greater adoption of sustainable technologies. One could argue that the end-to-end sustainability impact of chips is likely positive–despite their emissions and large energy and water needs.....