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Technical Insight

Magazine Feature
This article was originally featured in the edition:
2024 Issue 3

Waging a war on wastewater


Next-level water utilization and recycling for increased capacity means adopting newer technologies. Membrion is a start-up that has developed a novel electro-ceramic desalination technology that uses electricity and ceramic membranes to shrink the volume of harsh industrial wastewater.


The world knew it had a shortage of semiconductors even before the supply chain snarls of the COVID-19 pandemic. Booming demand is straining production at existing facilities, and while new facilities are under construction, it will be years before they become fully operational. Syncing the supply and demand curves for semiconductors will not happen anytime soon, and using legacy technologies for critical processes, such as the flow of wastewater, will not speed things up.

There is a surprising entrant into this industry: Membrion. Their target is expanding the capacity for wastewater, which can unlock a facility’s true potential. Increasing wastewater capacity gives semiconductor manufacturers the capability to upgrade existing facilities with new, higher-throughput tools and the flexibility to meet
emerging environmental priorities.

Membrion is a start-up that has developed a novel electro-ceramic desalination technology that uses electricity and ceramic membranes to shrink the volume of harsh industrial wastewater. This provides manufacturing facilities with a faster path to respond to growing demand for their products by ensuring that the limiting factor is not a facility’s 20+ year old wastewater treatment processes.

While more semiconductors bring welcome relief to many supply chains, the semiconductor manufacturing process delivers a one-two punch to local water sheds. On one hand, its manufacturing processes require a significant amount of water, and for semiconductors, much of that water must be ultra-pure. On the other hand, semiconductor manufacturing consumes no water and so everything becomes wastewater that must also be treated before being discharged. Together, this translates into two needs: First, a need for next-level water utilization and recycling processes, and second, the need for increased capacity within industrial wastewater facilities.

Next-level water utilization and recycling for increased capacity means adopting newer technologies. These do not include the monolithic, inefficient water systems and tools of the past – Membrion brings a new approach. Membrion technology was proven in multiple industrial markets, including semiconductors. In fact, in 2022, they are one of three water technology industry finalists for the Startups for Semiconductor Sustainability initiative led by SEMI. Subsequently, Membrion announced an investment from Lam Capital and Samsung Venture Investments. After multiple successful pilots and near-term commercial installations, Membrion has grown into a unique and valuable capacity expansion tool for facilities looking to accomplish more while consuming less.

If a new semiconductor plant is under construction in the United States, chances are good that Membrion’s CeramIX® electro-ceramic desalination (ECD) membrane modules are being evaluated. Similarly, exiting semiconductor plants are looking to expand capacity, and Membrion helps them shrink wastewater, enabling expanded capacity.

Electro-ceramic desalination membranes at work
Membrion’s flexible electro-ceramic desalination membranes are made from an abundant natural resource, silica. These electro-ceramic desalination membranes are designed to handle harsh conditions, resist fouling, and work in extreme pHs.

Membrion’s membranes are manufactured via roll-to-roll processing, which makes these desalination membranes economical. Plus, the beauty as it relates to facilities (and their many constraints) is that the membranes are used in stacked modules which are customizable and compact.

Membrion’s team works together with each customer to provide what they need to their exact specification and to maximize the capacity and flexible operation of their facility.

For existing semiconductor manufacturers, maximizing reliability is job number one
Reliability and capacity for wastewater treatment are one and the same. The capacities of the combined reuse and disposal systems of any manufacturing facility must equal or exceed the treatment plant capacity to ensure that the wastewater being processed can go somewhere. Capacity is the ability of facilities to treat, move, or process water. It is typically expressed in MDG (million gallons per day). Generally, when a facility is planned, there is a plan for the capacity for a certain amount of wastewater. What happens over time, as facilities become more and more productive, they end up using up their capacity. The norm becomes the facility operating at the razor’s edge of capacity. They cannot just dispose of wastewater down drains; they must treat it first.

Semiconductor facilities require a long time to build products, and yet the demand for what is manufactured is high, so the pressure is on to create a facility with high capacity. For pre-existing facilities, capacity is set and the expanding capacity with traditional technologies often requires significant additional space that is not always available.

Sometimes the facility is built, and the production goals change or increase to meet demand. Then, the wastewater capacity plan needs to be revised to accommodate higher production rates. Membrion, with modules which are customizable, can provide more capacity for existing facilities and more flexibility to meet those demand challenges with a minimal system footprint.

Membrion takes the challenging contaminants in wastewater and shrinks them into a much smaller volume than the volume with which the manufacturing facility started. If operating at or near capacity, Membrion can take that water and shrink it to a range of a factor of 5 to a factor of 50, depending on the wastewater stream. This optimizes and expands the capacity on which the facility may operate. Membrion creates a significant amount of capacity for wastewater treatment to continue to be used and operated effectively.

One of the ways the shrinking of the volume of wastewater occurs is through cooling towers. Membrion pioneered a new approach to cooling tower water treatment to reduce water needs in manufacturing. Membrion’s innovation, which incorporates its CeramIX® ceramic ion exchange membrane, is to prevent the minerals from building up in the first place. Pulling out minerals slowly over time ensures that the cooling tower can continue recycling its water, leading to higher cycles of concentration of >20 CoC. It can be paired with new or existing cooling towers and enables users across industries to improve water savings.

Membrion also steps in to assist and provide guidance in increasing permitted capacity for operational semiconductor facilities. Most facilities have permits for certain amounts of water, the types, and contaminant levels which they can discharge.

Membrion can assist by helping facilities stay within their existing permits by ensuring that challenging wastewaters, such as copper wastewater, are reduced in volume, which enables them to stay within their existing permits. Further, when new equipment is installed and requires permits, Membrion works with contractors and trade groups during the permitting process to ensure compliance and adequate capacity. There are additional benefits to the use of ECD technology in wastewater processes, including the reduction in the amount of chemicals needed, a reduction in the labor involved, and less energy consumption. Environmental, social and governance goals (ESG) can be met.

Changing compliance rules can also throw a wrinkle in semiconductor manufacturing processes and wastewater treatment capabilities. As those regulations continue to change and evolve, manufacturers must adapt. Since semiconductor manufacturing facilities are designed with older regulations in mind, they do not necessarily have additional space and are challenged to adapt to new regulations due to space constraints, making optimizing and expanding their capacity, and shrinking their wastewater, extremely important.

Opportunities in new semiconductor manufacturing facilities
New semiconductor manufacturing facilities, including the Intel plant in New Albany Ohio, require many years of planning and construction before the plant is operational and can begin to fulfill the demand for semiconductors. They require the involvement of many industries and a variety of expertise to plan, construct, support, and eventually produce semiconductors.

This includes the involvement of the water industry. It is often reported how great the impact of semiconductor manufacturing is on the water industry – using significant amounts of water. Without the integration of new technologies, like ECD, these water demands made the local water sheds gag, and even choke.

Membrion unlocks the potential for new facilities to incorporate state-of-the-art water reuse and water recycling processes from the beginning and to reduce CAPEX and OPEX for the entire life cycle of the facility.

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