Daily Management Review

Microelectronics industry in Taiwan to be driven by new environmental laws


For decades, Taiwan has been struggling with a potentially disastrous water situation. The boom in the microelectronics sector has not improved the pollution threat, and the country, which alternates between droughts and floods, flirts with dangerous water contamination levels, when water supplies run low. A new set of environmental laws in Taiwan is to change matters and reduce the impact of the industry on the streams and rivers.

Dave Wilson, Flickr - cc
Dave Wilson, Flickr - cc
The water shortage jigsaw in Taiwan is caused by multiple factors. The first is its terrain. The entire island is made of one long spine, with only its western seaboard, towards China, as a somewhat flat surface. As a result, most of the water that falls onto the island quickly winds up in the sea, instead of upping water levels. Then, the tropical marine climate comes into play. With an abundant 2600 millimeters of rain per year, one might think that water comes plenty. But the supply of rainwater is anything but regular, as most of it pours down during the two-month long rainy season of May and June, leaving the rest of the year quite dry.  As a result, dry toxic substances accumulate on the land, until the rain season washes it away in one go, thus concentrating a year’s substances in 2 months, in the water.  Finally, decade-long deforestation in Taiwan has further accelerated the evacuation of water towards the sea, as vegetation doesn't act like a sponge and retain the water.
The microelectronics industry has been many a time blamed for its dangerous effluents. With the Taiwan miracle in the 1970s, economic success came with parallel environmental strain, as 60 major R&D companies developed production sites on the island, with government encouragement, between 1979 and 1990. A high-level study presented at the 2012 International Conference on Ecology, Waste Recycling, and Environment indicated that abnormally high, or sometimes even dangerous, levels of metals and chemicals could be found downstream from microelectronics. The main toxic substances are silicium, vanadium, strontium, uranium and selenium, ammonia and other toxins, all of which present high health risks, as soon as they exceed (very low) thresholds in the water.
A large number of environmentalist groups have been placing pressure on the government to curb the pollution increase rate, and protect the small island's soil. One of the two largest ecologist lobbies, Anti-Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Industry Movement (AKKPIM), launched a multi-faceted campaign, against the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical industry it accused of soiling the ground, with a successful outcome in 2012, with a change in government construction policy. Their fears were not unfounded, as many illnesses were reported in Taiwan in the 1950s, due to arsenic-contaminated water. With still concerns as to water pollution, nowadays, such as legionella stems in wastewater plants, Taiwan has passed new environmental laws, and placed a cap on the effluent levels plants are allowed to emit, including the highly incriminated microelectronics production sites. Those factories from now on will be held responsible for water pollution substances they let out, beyond their fences.
The new regulations are very demanding, so demanding that it has turned into a unique opportunity for water treatment specialists. Treating the water in the traditional way would be both extremely impractical and almost economically unfeasible, given the water volumes considered and the associated operating costs. Only the most advanced technologies in the world will enable the industry to comply with the new regulations in a sustainable way.
Amongst the giants of the water treatment industry, Veolia Water Technologies has been working with some of the Taiwanese microelectronics champions towards defining and piloting a treatment line based on the patented Anita Mox Process, a new double-membrane biofilm system, which absorbs and breaks down particles, such as ammonia, that would otherwise contaminate the water. Two layers of biofilm fitted in a cartridge carrier operate a double process, one aerobic (using the free oxygen in the air), the other anoxic (using oxygen-depleted water), and prevent untreated water from escaping the carrier. With this technology, performance levels are increased between two- and ten-fold.
While Nitrogen removal from water, in traditional ways, requires large levels of oxygen and methanol, Veolia's Anita Mox system requires less than twice the oxygen necessary, and no methanol at all.
Moreover, the common systems produce sludge and therefore clear up the water, only to pollute again downstream with sludge that accumulates and clogs. It is therefore all about not displacing the problem by reducing toxins on the one hand and producing sludge on the other. The new Anita Mox based treatment line proposed by Veolia produces 10 times less sludge, which makes it the most eco-friendly advanced technology known to date able to tackle Taiwan’s new challenges.
Like Taiwan, many Asian countries are starting to address firmly endemic pollutions created by decades of strong economic growths and the associated industrial development, which, very often, didn’t take into consideration the necessary protection of our environment.