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Tech’s toll

Semiconductors 'very narrow aperture' to view water conflicts, drought says geographer


By Joshua Goudie

Do you wake up to an alarm on your phone?

When you roll out of bed, is the house warm thanks to a programmable thermostat?

Dr. Josh Lepawsky, a white man in his late 40s, stands in front of a large window while resting his elbow on a railing.
Dr. Josh Lepawsky says the electronics sector is “a very narrow aperture that allows you to see a very broad field of problems.”
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Whether you know it or not, by the time you’ve made it to breakfast, you’ve already come into contact with at least half a dozen semiconductors.

Semiconductors, or what most of us think of as computer chips, are used to conduct electricity under certain conditions and insulate from electricity under others.

They exist in almost every piece of modern technology — and their production contributes to drought, food shortages, conflicts over available clean water and other problems.

Silicon strain

In a recent ScienceDirect publication, Dr. Josh Lepawsky, a professor in Memorial’s Department of Geography, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, highlights how semiconductor manufacturing is projected to be impacted by water stress globally, particularly in already vulnerable areas.

Supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant, Dr. Lepawsky has been researching the connections between the planet and human technological systems.

“There are no electronics without . . . large volumes of water.” — Dr. Josh Lepawsky

He has been particularly focused on the issue of what gets discarded from the electronics industry.

“How are contemporary discards made? Where do they travel and where do their effects accumulate?” Dr. Lepawsky asked.

When it comes to semiconductors, water is a significant discard; in the simplest terms, semiconductor manufacturing is a water-intensive process, he says.

“There are no electronics without semiconductors,” said Dr. Lepawsky, “and no semiconductors without large volumes of water.”

Semiconductors are typically small, occupying only a fraction of the technology they control. Made of silicon, they are repeatedly cleansed and etched, removing debris and contaminants as multiple intricate layers are transferred onto their surface.

At least 40 percent of all existing semiconductor facilities, as well as 40-49 per cent of facilities announced since early 2021, are or will be situated in high- or extremely high-risk locations for water stress, Dr. Lepawsky says.

Water woes

Reducing the amount of water used in the manufacturing process is an obvious solution; many manufacturing firms are taking the issue seriously, he says.

“But no matter how dramatic those reductions are, they cannot create a situation in which the water needed for semiconductor manufacturing is simultaneously accessible to other water users, such as farmers and municipalities for drinking water.”

There’s also no living in a digital world without semiconductors.

Phones, cars, computers and LED lights­ all use semi-conductors. Even the most virtuous of green technologies like solar panels can’t function without them.

“These things are embedded in our lives,” Dr. Lepawsky said.

Current crisis

On April 6, Taiwan was rocked by its biggest earthquake in 25 years.

The devastation to a country home to more than 90 per cent of the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturing has raised concerns that production of everything from smartphones to electric vehicles will be disrupted.

The region is already facing complications as, according to data from the Taiwan Statistics Office, the country’s cereal production has declined since the onset of drought in 2020.

“While you may not be directly affected by a drought, supply chain shortages and bottlenecks can potentially affect consumers worldwide.” — Dr. Josh Lepawsky

Dr. Lepawsky says there are concerns about geopolitical risks as both the growing semiconductor and agricultural sectors are important to Taiwan’s sovereignty.

In the U.S., semiconductor manufacturers are expanding in states like Arizona, where water stress is a growing concern amidst persistent drought conditions. Dr. Lepawsky’s research shows that most manufacturing sites in the country are located in high or extremely high-risk watersheds.

Even if you don’t live in Taiwan, Arizona or any other area where water stress is of particular concern, the cascading effects of semi-conductor manufacturing have the potential to reach you, says Dr. Lepawsky.

“While you may not be directly affected by a drought, supply chain shortages and bottlenecks can potentially affect consumers worldwide,” he said.

What’s also alarming is that, as Dr. Lepawsky dug deeper into the literature surrounding semiconductor manufacturing, thus far there has been almost no mention of climate change.

“The electronics sector is so symbolic of what’s going on in the world. It’s a very narrow aperture that allows you to see a very broad field of problems.”

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