Intel ramps up water recycling project

Facility could save billions of gallons on annual basis

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As Intel begins ramping up production at its massive new D1X factory in Hillsboro, Ore., the company is building a water recycling facility that could save nearly 1 billion gallons a year.

Intel is already the city’s largest water consumer, by a wide margin. Computer chip manufacturing requires tremendous volumes of water, to wash silicon wafers clean of residue left at multiple stages of the process.

Intel used more than 2 billion gallons of water in each of the past four years, according to Hillsboro, Ore., data, nearly a third of the city’s total water consumption in any given year.

And the chipmaker’s thirst — which has grown by more than a third since 2012 — is growing. Intel’s engineers have been developing their first, 10-nanometer chips there, and water use could shoot up dramatically when mass production begins at D1X late this year.

The 10nm chips will be the first line of technology developed in D1X, whose first phase has 1.1 million square feet of clean room space.

That’s nearly eight times bigger than the average Costco, and could dramatically increase the company’s Oregon output.

Saving millions daily

Intel declined to comment on its water use, and Hillsboro, Ore., water department director Kevin Hanway said the company has given him no indication of how much more water it expects to use once D1X starts up. But the company has talked with him about the water project, and he says it could save 2.5 million gallons a day.

Though Intel won’t say how the water project works, General Electric’s water technology group described it earlier this year. GE’s connection to the project is unclear, and it declined additional comment.

However, its earlier statement said Intel’s facility will use industrial water discharged from the manufacturing process and redirect it back into the factory for other applications.

GE said Intel will use the water to in cooling towers, environmental scrubbers that filter pollution, and in unspecified “abatement equipment.”

Those are all ancillary to the core manufacturing process, but are crucial — especially in Hillsboro, Ore., where Intel agreed to take a number of steps to monitor its atmospheric emissions after acknowledging it had been emitting fluoride for years without a permit.

New chips this year

Construction cranes have loomed over Intel’s Ronler Acres campus, just south of Hillsboro Stadium, for the better part of the past seven years. For most of that time they’ve been building D1X, a two-phase project valued at several billion dollars — or more.

The main construction work on D1X wrapped up last year, and Intel said in July that it plans to begin selling the 10nm chips developed there by the end of this year.

The cranes above Ronler Acres now are all for the water recycling project, according to Hillsboro, Ore., officials.

Increased capacity

The Hillsboro, Ore., company said permits associated with the project value it at $25 million, but it’s not clear whether that’s just the construction cost or if associated equipment will add to the total price tag.

Intel’s water bill in Hillsboro, Ore., was $6.7 million in 2016 for 2.3 billion gallons of water. So if it can recycle 1 billion gallons annually, that could save the company close to $3 million a year.

The city’s water supply is adequate to meet local demand with or without Intel’s recycling project, according to Hanway, the city’s water director. He said daily demand is currently around 18 million gallons, with capacity to handle up to 33 million gallons daily.

Working with other regional water districts, Hanway said that the city plans to increase its daily capacity to nearly 42 million gallons over the next several years.

Hillsboro, Ore., plans additional increases to accommodate new industrial and residential development, including the massive South Hillsboro project that could add as many as 20,000 residents over 20 years to a city that’s currently home to a little more than 105,000 people.

Reduced consumption

Even as the population grows, though, water use per person is falling. Fifteen years ago, Hanway said, the average person used 97 gallons per day. Now it’s 64 gallons a day.

Like Intel, Hanway said households are making changes to reduce their water consumption. New toilets, washing machines and watering equipment all use a lot less water than in the past.

“The biggest part of it is changeouts in water-using fixtures,” Hanway said.