The industry needs a reliable source to keep supply chains moving
Some of the world’s most vital industries must have ultrapure water to operate. Chip manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, biotech, research labs, chemical companies, hospitals, the food and beverage industry, and power plants all rely on it. But ultrapure water production requires source water and comparatively high energy use, and climate risk and other factors can interrupt both.
Water treatment powered by alternative energy sources, however, can bring resilience against shocks to industry while also meeting important sustainable development goals and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) benchmarks.
The Taiwan Semiconductor Wake-Up Call
If there was ever a doubt about the importance of ultrapure water to industry, the 2020-21 severe drought in Taiwan put it to bed. The dry spell was a big part of a shortage of semiconductor chips manufactured in that country. The resulting supply chain failure cascaded through the sectors of auto manufacturing, consumer electronics, and telecommunications, nearly bringing them to their knees.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world’s largest chip manufacturer, trucked in fresh water at great expense to get through the drought. It then commissioned a facility to treat, reclaim, and reuse industrial and municipal wastewater. TSMC hopes that by 2030, 60% of the water used by its Taiwan fabrication plants will be reclaimed effluent.
Industrial ultrapure water demand has grown significantly over the years to rival even demand for seawater desalination in the global water sector. Its production, though, requires five to ten processes, including ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis (RO), and ion exchange. RO does most of the heavy lifting to create a purer permeate. Although RO membranes are unparalleled at the removal of minerals and other impurities, the process requires energy-intensive pressurization to force water through membranes. Could clean, renewable energy come to the rescue?
Growth of Renewable Energy in the Water Sector
Many companies that use ultrapure water already incorporate renewable energy sources into other aspects of company operations. Intel and GlobalFoundries, for instance, have adopted solar power projects or made commitments to increase their share of renewable energy. Pfizer installs solar arrays at its facilities, and Anheuser-Busch InBev is phasing in solar power systems at some breweries. Hospitals, too, are exploring ways to incorporate renewable energy into their operations.
Alternative energy sources such as photovoltaics have been used to power wastewater treatment processes, but they have not been adopted as often to power RO because of energy cost and the size of the arrays needed. That is changing. As water and energy costs have risen and demand has grown, interventions that once might have been thought too difficult or costly are being considered. Nontraditional sources of water, such as desalination and reuse, are also growing.
Solar-Powered RO Desalination
While it’s more costly to treat seawater to ultrapure standards, there is no shortage of it in coastal regions. Arid regions with a nearby saline or brackish water source can also benefit. The Middle East is an example; Israel relies heavily on RO desalination. With the low cost of fossil fuel in oil-producing states, thermal distillation has held on despite inefficiency, but Oman just inaugurated the world’s largest solar power plant on a desalination facility.
The about-face in a region that still relies significantly on fossil fuels is a signal that trends are changing for solar water treatment. Both carrots and sticks are likely to incentivize the industry toward renewables to power ultrapure water production.
Solar-powered RO desalination is already trending as a source even for agricultural irrigation water in Spain. Agriculture is perhaps the last application imaginable for desalination because of the price differential between relatively inexpensive food products and, for instance, advanced microchips. The Spanish government, however, has recently allocated €2.19 billion (around $2.38 billion) for an agricultural solar desalination program. Could industries requiring ultrapure water be far behind?
Toward a Sustainable Future
Considering the market drivers in place and the regulatory and ESG advantages, it is likely that clean energy sources such as solar, wind, tidal, and reclaimed energy will grow in the water sector in general and the production of ultrapure water in particular. Seawater is generally the most challenging source from which to produce fresh water, but the numbers today look more promising. With renewables supplying the energy, and any water source an option, industry can insulate itself from climate and economic shocks to keep companies growing and supply chains moving into the future.
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