Energy and the cleanroom industry

The cleanroom industry must consider the current global energy
situation and its impact on manufacturing in order to forge a path to energy efficiency

By Robert McIlvaine, The McIlvaine Co.

There has been quite a bit written about the amount of energy consumed by cleanrooms. However, the impact of direct energy costs on the industry is very small compared to the indirect energy impacts, which include:

  • Energy security
  • Regional distribution of the industry
  • Reduction in expenditures for products made in cleanrooms

Energy security

The price of oil topped $100 per barrel in early January 2008. Negative political news in Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, and other oil-producing regions, along with unrest in neighboring countries such as Pakistan, creates a potential for sudden disruptions in oil and gas supplies.

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The reality is that the Middle East has nearly 4,000 quadrillion BTUs of oil reserves, which is more than the rest of the world combined. The U.S. reserves are small, dwindling year by year. Therefore, an interruption in Middle Eastern oil supplies would have enormous consequences on the world economy.

Fossil fuel reserves

Disruptions would soon cause reduced output by semiconductor, pharmaceutical, flat-panel display, and other industries utilizing cleanroom technology. Unless there are alternative sources of supply, the world economy would be downsized. With energy consumption on the rise and oil and gas reserves peaking, the long-term outlook is not bright, whether the Middle Eastern oil supply is disrupted or not.

Regional distribution of the industry

The United States is the Saudi Arabia of total energy reserves. With 5,800 quadrillion BTUs of coal reserves, the U.S. has more energy reserves than any other country. Since coal can be converted to gasoline at a cost that is competitive with oil priced at $50 to $60 per barrel, the U.S. has the opportunity to become energy self-sufficient.

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Concerns about global warming, however, are making it difficult for developers to site coal-to-liquids plants. These concerns are also making it difficult to site new coal-fired electricity generators. The utilities are forced to build natural gas-fired generators dependent on liquefied natural gas transported from Qatar and other areas of the Middle East.

The cost of electricity will easily double if coal becomes a smaller portion of the fuel mix. However, the fate of coal also impacts other costs. The manufacture of steel, paper, and many other products requires large amounts of energy. Rising production costs will drive semiconductor, pharmaceutical, and other industries to locations where costs are lower.

China and other developing Asian countries argue that developed countries are the cause of global warming, not developing nations. However, developing countries require inexpensive energy sources to maintain their growth. China has built more coal-fired power plants than the rest of the world combined over the last five years and will continue rapid construction of these plants in the future.

Europe and the U.S. will find themselves less and less competitive. The result will be an acceleration of the present trend toward Asian manufacturing of products made in cleanrooms.

Reduction of sale of products made in cleanrooms

If families spend an additional $3,000 each year for electricity and fuel, and additional thousands of dollars on products for which energy cost is a significant percentage of the selling price, then that money will not be spent on electronics, pharmaceutical products, health care, flat-panel TVs, and so on.

One of the big growth areas in the cleanroom industry relates to end-of-life health care expenditures. There has been great progress in developing equipment and drugs to allow life extensions from months to years. The problem is that more money can be spent to extend life in the last few months than is spent in all the preceding years. The reality is that there will be a limit on these expenditures, which is a function of the society’s wealth. To the extent the wealth is drained by energy cost increases, the less money will be available for health care.

A further reality is that alternative energy does not currently offer a low-cost supply of large amounts of electricity. There are significant improvements being made in both wind and solar technologies, but few experts would claim that these technologies would be cost-competitive in the next two decades.

Alternative energy manufacturing resources are limited as well. It now takes two years to obtain a wind turbine. The nuclear industry will struggle to build enough nuclear plants to offset those being retired in the next 10 years.

The developing countries of the world are increasing their energy usage at a rapid rate, and all available resources will be needed in order to keep up with the demand. If the use of coal is restricted, the cost of living will rise substantially.

Reducing cleanroom energy expenditures

Increases in energy costs will have a significant, direct effect on the cost of cleanroom products. However, there are ways to reduce the consumption of energy.

A web site devoted to semiconductor energy reduction has been set up at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (, showing the distribution of energy consuming operations in semiconductor plants.

Efficiency opportunities exist in all aspects of semiconductor manufacturing, but the supply and exhaust air systems account for 26 percent of the total. Recommendations for lowering energy consumption in the HVAC system include the following:

  • Lower cleanroom make-up and exhaust airflow rates conserve energy and reduce costs. For example, a properly designed exhaust system eliminates exhaust fluctuations and allows the airflow rate to be reduced, reducing the energy consumption in a fabrication facility by 10 to 20 percent.
  • Low face velocity cooling coils have lower pressure drops and less energy loss through ducts and filters, saving 3 to 7 percent on cleanroom electricity usage.
  • Higher-performance air filters clean supply air more efficiently, reducing energy consumption in the process.
  • Variable-speed drives in recirculation, make-up, and exhaust fan motors use 15 to 30 percent less energy than constant-speed drives.
  • High-efficiency motors, fans, and pumps use less energy.
  • Minimizing cleanroom volume reduces recirculation airflow requirements and the associated energy usage. Cleanroom minienvironments are designed to capture these savings.
  • Lower water flow rates in cooling towers reduce chilled water piping pressure drops and pumping energy usage. This efficiency measure can reduce facility energy consumption by 3 to 7 percent.
  • Separating chiller loops for sensible and latent cooling functions, with correspondingly different supply temperatures and energy inputs, can save energy.

Recommendations for the cleanroom industry

Reducing direct energy consumption without sacrificing product quality or increasing cost is one obvious recommendation.

A larger opportunity is to participate in the important debate on energy sources and help shape the most sensible policy. Unfortunately, there has been what one journalist calls an “availability cascade” on the dangers of global warming. Many readers believe global warming is a big problem and will read stories about the dire consequences. When one obscure scientific journal carried an article claiming that global warming caused hurricanes, it was reported in many mainstream publications. At the same time, a prestigious scientific journal carried an article claiming that global warming did not affect hurricane severity. The second article received no media attention. Therefore, it is difficult for the average person to obtain an accurate assessment of the situation.

There are significant costs associated with an energy policy that severely limits coal consumption. There are also considerable energy security risks. These must be considered in shaping the choices and in obtaining the right balance between environmental and economic outcomes.

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Robert McIlvaine is president and founder of The McIlvaine Co. in Northfield, IL. The company first published Cleanrooms: World Markets in 1984 and has since continued to publish market and technical information for the cleanroom industry. He can be reached at [email protected]


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