Why Intel and TSMC are building water-dependent chip factories in one of the driest U.S. states
The biggest semiconductor manufacturers in the world are quickly trying to build new factories as the global chip crisis continues to wreak havoc on a plethora of industries.
U.S. semiconductor giant Intel announced in March that it plans to spend $20 billion on two new chip plants in Arizona. Separately, TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) said it was going to build a $12 billion factory in Arizona, and chief executive C.C. Wei said Wednesday that construction had already begun.
The Grand Canyon State may not, however, seem like the most obvious place for a chip “foundry” or “fab” since the high-tech manufacturing plants guzzle millions of gallons of water every day.
At present, in the face of climate change, Arizona is facing a deepening water crisis and some of the state’s all-important aquifers have an uncertain future.
Arizona received just 13.6 inches of rainfall on average per year between 1970 and 2000, according to the NOAA National Climatic Data Center, making it the fourth driest state nationwide. Conversely, Hawaii and Louisiana recorded the highest levels of average yearly precipitation in the U.S. over the same time frame, reporting 63.7 inches and 60.1 inches, respectively.
“Water is a key element in semi manufacturing, but the infrastructure has been put in place [in Arizona] to ensure adequate supply to meet the industry’s current needs,” Alan Priestley, vice president analyst at tech research firm Gartner, told CNBC.
A key consideration of any new construction would most likely be contributions to enhancing the water supply infrastructure, he added.
Glenn O’Donnell, vice president and research director at analyst firm Forrester, told CNBC that chip fabrication plants “recycle water religiously,” adding that it’s a bit like a swimming pool in an enclosed building.
“You need a lot to fill it, but you don’t have to add much to keep it going,” he said. “Also, being in an enclosed space, a lot of the water that evaporates can be captured with a dehumidifier and returned to the pool. The fabs will do similar things with their own water usage.”
Intel notes on its website that it is striving to achieve “net positive water use” in Arizona and that it has funded 15 water restoration projects that aim to benefit the state. “Once fully implemented, these projects will restore an estimated 937 million gallons each year,” the company says.
TSMC and Intel, two of the biggest heavyweights in the chip industry, have chosen to expand in Arizona for several other reasons, according to the analysts.
Intel has had a presence in Arizona for over 40 years and the state is home to a well-established semiconductor ecosystem. Other major chip companies with a presence in Arizona include On Semiconductor, NXP and Microchip.
Intel now employs over 12,000 people in Arizona and the state is home to Intel’s newest manufacturing facility, Fab 42.
As Intel has increased its presence in Arizona, the local universities have “established a strong reputation for semiconductor design courses and research providing a highly-skilled work force for the local semi industry,” Priestley said. “This has helped create an ecosystem of companies to supply the products and services necessary to manufacture chips.”
TSMC will be “able to tap into these resources and [the] ecosystem of supply chain vendors,” Priestley said.
Local tax breaks and incentives “will have played a big part” in the initial site selection, he continued, noting that land availability, land costs, housing costs and the local economy will have also been considered.
The case for Arizona doesn’t stop there. Its seismic stability and relatively low risk of other natural interference are appealing to chipmakers, O’Donnell said.
“A chip factory cannot shake, not even a microscopic amount,” he said, adding that they set such factories into the bedrock to keep them still. “Even a 0.5 Richter shake can ruin an entire crop of chips.”
That said, Intel does have some chip plants on the West Coast of the U.S., where the ground is more susceptible to earthquakes. The company has a huge presence in Hillsboro, Oregon, for example.
“The West Coast does have fabs but they need to take great measures to isolate the shaking,” said O’Donnell. “They don’t need such drastic measures in Arizona because it shakes a lot less.”
Arizona is also immune from most other natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, O’Donnell said.
With its bountiful sunshine, Arizona also boasts “dependable, plentiful and green electrical power,” O’Donnell said, calling out Salt River Project as a local power utility in the Phoenix area that caters to big consumers of power. A chip foundry needs power on the scale of a steel plant, according to O’Donnell.
Ultimately, it largely boils down to politics.
“The political machinery in Arizona is determined to make the state business friendly,” said O’Donnell. “More business equals more and better jobs equals more votes to the power brokers. The recent announcements by Intel and TSMC come via a lot of help from federal, state and local government entities.”
Quick Charge Podcast: March 30, 2023
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Tesla is rumored to be planning a US LFP battery cell factory with CATL
Tesla is rumored to be planning a new battery factory to produce LFP cells in the US with China’s CATL, the world’s biggest battery manufacturer.
Over the last few years, CEO Elon Musk has said multiple times that Tesla plans to shift more electric cars to LFP batteries in order to overcome nickel and cobalt supply concerns.
Iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which don’t use nickel or cobalt, are traditionally cheaper and safer, but they offer less energy density, which means less efficiency and a shorter range for electric vehicles.
However, they have improved enough recently that it now makes sense to use cobalt-free batteries in lower-end and shorter-range vehicles. It also frees up the production of battery cells with other, more energy-dense chemistries to produce longer-range vehicles.
The main issue is that LFP battery cell production is currently almost entirely concentrated in China. Therefore, it creates a logistical problem for electric vehicles produced in other markets.
Furthermore, in the US, it creates a problem for automakers trying to take advantage of the new federal tax credit for electric vehicles, which requires that the batteries of electric vehicles be produced in North America in order for buyers to get the full $7,500 credit. It creates a demand to bring LFP production to North America.
Ford has recently announced a plan to partner with CATL, the world’s biggest battery cell manufacturer, to build LFP battery cells at a $3.5 billion factory in Michigan.
Now Tesla is rumored to be doing the same thing. Bloomberg first reported the rumor:
The EV maker discussed plans involving Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. with the White House in recent days, said the people, who asked not to be identified revealing private conversations. Tesla representatives sought clarity on the Inflation Reduction Act rules that the Biden administration is finalizing this week, according to some of the people. Rohan Patel, the company’s senior global director of public policy, was among those involved with the discussions, one of the people said.
The report is light on detail, but it states that Tesla is looking at a similar structure to Ford’s own deal with CATL. Texas has also been rumored to be a possible location for the new factory.
The LFP cells would enable Tesla buyers to get the full tax on the base Model 3, which is about to lose the incentive because its cells currently come from CATL’s Chinese factories.
Heart Aerospace finds a new partner to develop ES-30 electric plane battery
Swedish electric airplane maker Heart Aerospace is joining forces with BAE Systems to develop a battery system for its ES-30 electric plane.
Heart partners with BAE to develop electric plane battery
Heart Aerospace is paving the way for sustainable electric air travel to become the norm with its leading-edge zero-emission aircraft.
We first covered the company in 2021 after it made waves with its ES-19 electric airplane. The aircraft was designed to carry up to 19 people up to 250 miles (400 km), perfect for short-distance travel.
The innovation was enough to attract an investment from the third largest US air carrier, United Airlines, in July 2021. United committed to purchasing and deploying 100 ES-19 electric aircraft to its fleet as it works to erase emissions from its fleet “without relying on traditional carbon offsets.”
Air Canada, the largest airliner in Canada, invested $5 million into Heart last year in addition to ordering 30 of its newest model, the ES-30.
Heart introduced the ES-30 last year, an electric plane driven by four electric motors and a battery system. The electric aircraft will have a fully-electric zero-emission range of up to 200 km (124 miles) and 30-minute fast charge capabilities. Hybrid reserve turbogenerators allow travel of nearly 500 miles (800 km) at 25 people max.
To advance the ES-30 battery system, Heart is partnering with BAE Systems, best known for its leading defense and aerospace solutions. The battery system will be the “first of its kind” for a conventional takeoff and landing regional aircraft, operating with zero emissions and significantly reduced noise.
The collaboration will utilize BAE Systems’ over 25 years of experience electrifying heavy-duty industrial vehicles. Chief operating officer at Heart Aerospace, Sofia Graflund, said:
BAE Systems’ extensive experience in developing batteries for heavy-duty ground applications, and their experience in developing safety critical control systems for aerospace, make them an ideal partner in this important next step for the ES-30 and for the aviation industry.
Heart Aerospace says it already has 230 orders and another 100 options for the ES-30 electric aircraft. In addition, Heart says it has a letter of intent for another 108 planes. The ES-30 is scheduled to enter service in 2028.
Heart Aerospace is aiming to double the all-electric range of its aircraft by the late 2030s with close to 250 miles (400km) range. In addition to offering zero emissions, electric airplanes feature lower costs (electricity compared to jet fuel) and less maintenance due to engine repair.
Although 124 miles may not seem like much, it will be perfect for regional air travel while building a base for the future of zero-emission air travel.
The 30-minute fast charge feature is perfect for turning around flights quickly in between loading passengers and luggage.
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