Taiwan — which accounts for more than half of the world’s output of chips — has been grappling for months with its worst drought in more than 50 years, an event experts say could become more frequent due to the effects of climate change.
“There is clearly pressure in the semiconductor industry,” wrote Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, on Thursday in a note that referenced the water shortages and coronavirus cases, along with rolling power outages.
The water is used to clean dozens of layers of metal that go into making up a semiconductor.
“In a chip, there are lots of billions of transistors, and we need a lot of metal layers to interconnect all the signals,” said Jefferey Chiu, an electrical engineer at National Taiwan University.
“We have to clean the surface again and again after every process is finished,” Chiu said.
Taiwanese authorities have limited the supply of tap water across the island in response to the drought.
TSMC has already tried to address the shortage by trucking in water and by boosting recycling rates. The company told CNN Business that production has so far not been affected.
“We have detailed response procedures to handle water shortages at different stages,” it said. “Through our existing water conservation measures, we are able to manage the current water usage reduction requirements from the government, with no impact on our operations.”
Super advanced chips are tough to make due to the high cost of development and the knowledge required to manufacture them, meaning that much of the production is concentrated among just a handful of suppliers.
The Taiwanese company’s state-of-the-art technology has also made it a key player as the United States and China engage in a bitter rivalry over developing advanced technologies of the future, such as artificial intelligence, 5G and cloud computing.
“TSMC is key to many different companies,” said Alan Priestley, vice president analyst for Gartner. “Most of the high-performance electronics you are using today — like cell phones and tablets — all those chips are made by the TSMC.”
That makes any threat to Taiwan’s production all the more important to contain.
“That’s why it’s urgent,” Lee said. “We hope the international community can help release vaccines as soon as possible to help control the outbreak.”
Lee’s office declined an interview request from CNN Business, citing his busy schedule.
TSMC said last month that two of its staff had been diagnosed with Covid-19, though it said operations have carried on as usual. And Chiu, the National Chengchi University engineer, said many firms will likely be able to mitigate risks, since the chip manufacturing process is highly automated and manufactures have segregated employees in groups to limit any spread of the virus.
Still, at least five semiconductor manufacturers southwest of the capital Taipei have been forced to suspend some operations as migrant workers fall ill.
King Yuan Electronics, a leading supplier of semiconductor testing and packaging services, had to suspend business for two days last weekend after more than 200 staff members tested positive, according to the Central News Agency, the island’s official news source. All migrant workers, or about 30% of the company’s 7,000 workers, were placed in quarantine for two weeks after a virus cluster was reported at their dormitories.
While King Yuan said it has deployed more Taiwanese workers to its production lines, it warned that factories are only able to operate at limited capacity.
April data on global orders for semiconductors suggests that “capacity constraints will persist,” Williams of Capital Economics wrote last month, noting there were a lot more orders than exports from Taiwan.
“This won’t continue indefinitely: orders for semiconductors last month were 74% higher than pre-pandemic which isn’t sustainable,” Williams said, adding that the order backlog “will take a while to clear.”
Experts say the water shortage problem, meanwhile, could worsen in the future. Climate change is likely to bring less rainfall to Taiwan in the coming decades, which could result in more frequent droughts, according to Hsu Huang-hsiung, a climate researcher at Academia Sinica.
“Our projections show the drought is going to become more severe in the future. So this year has provided a good opportunity to test the sustainability of our semiconductor industry,” Hsu said.
That could potentially limit Taiwan’s development of advanced chips, according to Chiu. That’s because as the technology behind semiconductors becomes more sophisticated, chipmakers will require more water during the chemical processes needed to manufacture them.
Water shortages aren’t the only environmental issue at play, either. Rolling blackouts caused by a growing demand for electricity in Taiwan have also stifled production. TSMC said that power outages even affected some of its facilities.
“We need to cut down our carbon dioxide emission. But on the other hand, we need to generate more electricity,” said Hsu, adding that Taiwan’s semiconductor firms will need to invest in more renewable energies to ensure a sustainable future.
TSMC has said it is already working to shore up its energy supply by partnering with solar plants and wind farms across the island. Last year, it said it intends to power its production entirely through renewable energy by 2050.
— Will Ripley, Hanna Ziady, Clare Duffy and Jill Disis contributed to this report.