For Intel, making the computing chips that power modern devices is impossible without water.
Millions of gallons are needed each day to rinse the chemicals that polish each layer of the tiny semiconductors.
The chip-making giant announced a $3.5 billion retrofit of its Rio Rancho plant in May to boost production capacity of its chip-packaging technology.
To support water demand for the expansion, the company will pay the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to build a $32 million, 6-mile water pipeline from two wells west of Universe Boulevard to the Rio Rancho plant.
Linda Qian, spokeswoman for Intel New Mexico, said the company will then filter the non-potable groundwater on site into “ultrapure water.”
“We use that ultrapure water to clean the surface of the silicon wafer,” Qian said. “If you think of the chip process as building layers on top of a wafer, in between each of those layers, you rinse with ultrapure water.”
When the 200-acre site opened, Qian said, manufacturing demanded about 2 gallons of fresh water to produce 1 gallon of ultrapure water.
Now, the ratio is about 1 to 1.
Intel estimates demand at the expanded plant could be 1 million to 3 million gallons of water a day.
The pipeline project will also replace well motors, pumps and casings.
Intel also uses water for cooling towers, industrial equipment and landscaping.
“Most of our water is used and recycled, and used again, treated and then discharged,” Qian said. “A portion of the water we use is lost to irrigation or some other processes, so our restoration efforts are focused on closing that gap.”
In 2020, Intel pumped more than 756 million gallons of groundwater for its New Mexico plant, according to company data.
The company treated and discharged about 705 million gallons, or 93% of its withdrawals, back into the municipal system.
Intel has a goal of restoring more water than it uses by 2030.
In New Mexico, Intel has funded watershed restoration projects with Audubon, Trout Unlimited and the National Forest Foundation.
Qian said the company is pursuing more water and habitat projects with conservation groups to balance the increase in groundwater pumping.
The city-county water utility treats Intel’s wastewater again before discharging it into the Rio Grande.
Utility spokesman David Morris said the two groundwater wells west of Universe Boulevard were taken out of service about two decades ago because they exceeded new federal standards for arsenic.
“Arsenic is mainly a West Side issue because of naturally occurring arsenic related to the volcanoes and volcanic rock,” Morris said.
But the water authority reserved the wells as a backup source for the northwest part of town.
“In times of really high demand, maybe in the height of the summer months … we can blend water from these wells with water brought in from elsewhere to get it to the federal standard,” Morris said.
Intel will fund $15 million in transmission lines to boost the area’s drinking water capacity and replace the utility’s backup water source.
The water authority is preparing to ask the state Legislature for $30 million for projects in the utility’s northwest service area, although Morris said the work is “only tangentially related to Intel.”
“We’re looking at adding some arsenic treatment capacity out there with an additional arsenic treatment plant,” he said.
“We need to do some improvements to an existing pump station and we need to upgrade reservoirs.”
The utility anticipates pipeline construction will begin in April. The system should be delivering water to the Intel facility by December.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.