Inside the chip factory uses 40 million liters of water every day

To make a chip as small as a fingertip, the production system must be huge machines, consuming large amounts of water every day.

A modern chip contains more than 50 billion transistors, each less than 10,000 times the width of a human hair. To create them required a huge factory with a height of 7 floors and the length of four football fields, and the accompanying advanced machines.

In terms of importance, microchips are considered the lifeblood of the modern economy. They power computers, smartphones, cars, home appliances, and a host of other electronic devices. The world's demand for chips has been soaring since the pandemic took hold, while supply chain disruptions led to chip shortages across the globe.

In fact, the process of creating semiconductor chips is not simple. To visualize, the New York Times described the inside of two Intel factories in Chandler and Hillsboro, Arizona.

Chip making process

Chips, or integrated circuits, began to replace bulky, individual transistors in the late 1950s. The small components in them are manufactured on a piece of silicon, connected together to function. Depending on the purpose, the chip will be responsible for storing data, amplifying radio signals or performing other operations. Intel is best known for its wide range of microprocessors, which perform most of the computing functions of a computer.

An Intel employee holds a silicon wafer used to make chips. Photo: NYT

According to Moore's law, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double every two years. Intel has been trying to shrink the size of transistors on its processors, but in recent years, it's almost lost its breath compared to some other competitors, like Taiwan's TSMC.

Intel, TSMC are trying to pack as many transistors on each piece of silicon as possible. But to do it and get ahead of the competition, new chip factories also cost billions of dollars.

The competition is so fierce that fewer and fewer companies can afford to build factories with advanced manufacturing processes. In addition to paying for factory construction and machinery investment, businesses also have to spend "tons of money" to develop complex processing systems behind, used to produce chips from silicon wafers, called silicon wafers. fab.

To create the chip, giant machines design and calculate the number of transistors on each wafer, then carve it into the material, using chemical vapor deposition to create and connect the transistors. Up to 25 wafers can be moved simultaneously between systems. They are located inside a special plastic box and run on automatic overhead rails.

A machine used to carve material from silicon wafers when making chips. Photo: NYT

Processing a wafer can take thousands of steps and up to two months. TSMC currently has the most modern technology, able to operate "gigafab" factories with four or more production lines. Dan Hutcheson, Vice President of TechInsights, estimates that each of TSMC's "gigafab" plants can process more than 100,000 wafers per month. Meanwhile, Intel's two $10 billion under-construction plants in Arizona are expected to process about 40,000 wafers during the same period.

After fabrication, the wafer is cut into thin slices containing the chip. Initially, they are wrapped in plastic packages and connected to circuit boards or system components to run tests before going into the packaging process.

The packing takes place strictly. A speck of dust not visible to the naked eye can damage a chip at any time. Therefore, factories are often treated cleaner than hospital operating rooms. They are equipped with state-of-the-art technology, with complex systems to filter the air and regulate ambient temperature and humidity.

The transistors are stacked, then packaged. Video: NYT

The fabs must also have maximum static, any vibration even the slightest cause expensive wafers to fail immediately. So fab factories are built on giant concrete slabs with special damping systems.

Clean air is something factories pay special attention to. On the top floor at the Intel factory, giant fans help circulate air to the filter room directly below. In this room are thousands of pumps, transformers, electrical cabinets, air ducts and refrigeration equipment connected to the production area.

The necessity of water

The fab uses a lot of water when operating. Water is a key ingredient in chip making, essential for cleaning wafers at many stages of the manufacturing process.

For example, the Intel factory in Chandler uses 41 million liters of water per day. However, with future factory expansion, this number will increase significantly. This is also a big challenge for Intel, because Arizona is a state with frequent droughts, while it also has to use water for agricultural purposes.

Water treatment area inside Intel factory in Arizona. Photo: NYT

Intel says its plant relies on water supplies from three rivers and a system of wells. The wastewater is then treated back through the filtration system and settling tank with a recovery rate of 82%. This water is mainly used for irrigation and some other uses.

According to Intel estimates, the construction of future chip factories will require about 5,000 skilled workers and take three years. Dan Doron, Intel's Chief Construction Officer, said: "The foundation will remove 890,000 cubic meters of soil, then pour over 445,000 cubic meters of concrete and use 100,000 tons of reinforcing steel for the foundation. more than building the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai."

According to Doron, building the factory requires many giant cranes, which are transported by more than 100 trucks. It is estimated that the crane lifts about 55 tons of materials every day.

Bao Lam (according to New York Times )

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