The smaller things become, the more resource and energy intensive they are to make. Silicon chips are now at a scale of nanometers. A dust particle is about 1,000 times larger, so we can’t have any dust. To purify and clean silicon chips requires enormous quantities of water. Every single chip requires about 100 liters of ultra-pure water. To create ultra-pure water requires 140-160 liters of ordinary water.
Taiwan dominates chip-making and it “is going to great lengths to keep water flowing to its all-important semiconductor industry, including shutting off irrigation to legions of rice growers,” the New York Times stated in 2021. However, the 2021 drought was so severe that the Taiwanese government was forced to issue a red alert on its water supply. “The government will reduce water supply to two science parks in Taichung by 15 percent, home to chip fabs operated by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) and Micron Technology,” Data Center Dynamics reported.
TSMC is the largest chip-maker in the world. It consumed over 150,000 tons of water per day in 2019. In 2020, this rose to 193,000 tons per day, a 25% increase, as Taiwan faced its worst drought in fifty years. US chip-maker Intel stated that it used 161,000 tons of water a day in 2020. So, in 2020, TSMC used about 70 billion liters of water and Intel used 58 billion liters of this precious, dwindling resource. That 128 billion liters of this scarce, life-sustaining resource for Intel and TSMC is enough to fill 51,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Meanwhile, the 2020s sees a chip-building boom in the United States, with many of the new factories depending on the Colorado River for water. 18% less water flowed through this river between 2000 and 2018 than the 20th-century average. California, for example, is in 2022 using 20% more Colorado River water than it is entitled to under the “Law of the River.”
Digital is not green. Digital is a dirty, hugely energy- and resource-intense industry. To become clean, a silicon chip dirties and drains the Earth on a massive scale. Water is one of our most precious resources and yet it is still treated as some cheap commodity. We must calculate the true and total cost to the Earth of these wonderful digital devices, websites and apps we are building. Each software feature we create drinks lots of water. Each webpage we create drinks lots of water.
We have already reached a point where governments are prioritizing silicon chips instead of potato chips, instead of rice fields. Tech companies are extraordinarily secretive about their water usage. They don’t want us to know how much water they use because they have spent years building a myth of digital as some clean, pure, fluffy cloud. The Cloud is on the ground. Digital is intensely physical. Digital is intensely material. A great many of these resource-water-intense silicon chips will be thrown away after a couple of years of use. Digital is intensely wasteful.