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Less Water = Fewer Wafers?

Less Water = Fewer Wafers?

Since 2012, water use at Intel's Rio Rancho facility has fallen by 48 percent

Does Intel’s Drastically Reduced Water Use Reveal Drastic Manufacturing Decline?

Less water use, fewer silicon wafers would track with recent layoffs


There’s no way to know what’s really going on at Intel’s Rio Rancho plant, especially when it comes to layoffs or if or when it will close. Company officials have always refused to discuss those matters.

But there is one statistic about the plant that Intel officials can’t hide that can offer a glimpse into how the facility is doing: how much water it uses.

Since 2012, Intel’s Rio Rancho facility’s water usage has fallen by 48 percent, according to information from the city of Rio Rancho and New Mexico Office of the State Engineer.

In 2012, the plant used 1.67 billion gallons of water, for an average of 4.63 million gallons a day. In 2015, it used 867.7 million gallons, or 2.28 million gallons a day,

As of January, the factory had 1,900 employees, down 400 from the previous January, and down from 3,300 in 2013. In the mid-2000s, the plant had around 5,500 workers.

What Intel will say is that since 2012, the Rio Rancho plant has been engaged in an “aggressive” water conservation program that “has implemented a variety of conservation methods in our process, including water reuse and increased efficiencies,” plant spokeswoman Liz Shipley told ABQ Free Press. She added that “Intel does not comment on production.”

But water usage at the Rio Rancho plant has fallen while Intel’s company-wide usage has pretty much stayed the same since 2012. And, the company expects to use more water in the future.

What is clear is that it takes lots of water to make computer chips. Ultra purified water is used to wash silicon wafers on which a chip’s integrated circuits sit, but exactly how much water is needed to produce a single chip isn’t clear. A 1996 Stanford University study said it took 10 gallons of water to make a single computer chip. A 2002 paper from Dartmouth College said it took 32,000 grams of water – or 8.4 gallons — to make a two-gram microchip.

The semi-conductor industry has tried with limited success in recent years to reduce water usage, especially as circuits become smaller and chips more complex, according to some published articles. Intel is no exception. The company has a goal of reducing its water use at all its facilities to below 2010 levels by 2020.

In 2015, Intel’s plants worldwide used 9 billion gallons of water, up from 8.4 billion the previous year, and about the same as in 2012, according to the company’s 2015 corporate sustainability report. And Intel expects to use more water in the coming years.

“As our manufacturing processes continue to evolve, we expect to become more water-intensive, and our water withdrawals may increase,” the sustainability report said. “To address this issue, we have put a team of internal experts in place to investigate and develop a comprehensive plan to address our growing water use.”

Intel’s Rio Rancho plant gets water from two sources: Rio Rancho’s municipal system and from three wells the company drilled to supply the facility. In 2012, the plant used 649.7 million gallons from Rio Rancho’s system, and 1.1 billion gallons from its wells for a total of 1.7 billion gallons.

In 2015, the factory used 26.2 million gallons from Rio Rancho and 841.6 million gallons from its wells for a total of 867.7 million gallons. That represents a 48.1 percent decrease.

Another way to try to gauge what’s going on at Intel’s New Mexico plant is to look at manufacturing sales. While it’s called the Rio Rancho plant, the Intel facility is actually in the unincorporated area of Sandoval County, and it accounts, by far, for most of the manufacturing activity in the unincorporated area of the county.

In April, gross receipts for manufactured goods in the unincorporated area of Sandoval County totaled $12.3 million, according to the New Mexico Department of Taxation and Revenue. That was down from $15.7 million in April of 2015 and off from $12.5 million in April of 2014.

Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Oress. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.








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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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Albuquerque’s definitive alternative newspaper publishing an inquisitive, modern approach to the news and entertainment stories that matter most to New Mexicans. ABQ Free Press’ fresh voice speaks to insightful and involved professionals who care deeply about our community.