When Dr Philippe Bergeron, director of the Regional Institute of Environmental Technology (RIET), discussed the process that the jury followed to choose a winner from industry for the Asia Water Management Excellence Awards, he emphasised one thing: that the award was not about recognising innovative technology. "The industry award is not here to award technology per se, but to award the application of technologies in a particular industrial context, which lead to substantial water saving and conservation."

The jury trawled through several nominations from companies who pointed out that the technology they had developed was very efficient. "We answered them: look, bring us examples of where your technology has been applied, because that’s where you really get results."

The jury hit on a winner, however, when they looked at the applied technologies used by STMicroelectronics, one of the world’s ten largest semiconductor manufacturers. The company runs 17 primary manufacturing sites across the globe and has over 35,000 employees. "Wafer fabrication consumes a huge amount of water due to the need to wash and continue washing to avoid dirt coming into contact with the wafers," explained Dr Bergeron. "This company has been extremely efficient in reusing and recycling water, especially in their plant in Singapore." Wafers are used in the production of integrated circuits. In 1991, each wafer produced by the company required 3.5 cubic metres of water. Now just one cubic metre is required.

Mr Ted Li Hai Ming, a senior EHS engineer and a "site environmental champion" at the Singapore plant, was there to accept the award. In an interview afterwards, he noted that this wasn’t the first award the company has picked up as a result of its environmental efforts: since 1991 it has received 24 environmental accolades. "Our CEO [Pasquale Pistorio] is very committed to environmental protection, and that’s why he has put real effort – and investment – into this area," he said. Mr Pistorio believes that sustainability is "better than free because it provides a real competitive advantage".

The company has an "Environmental Decalogue", or ten environmental commandments, which provide a blueprint for it becoming "environmentally neutral". Among other things, it states that the company will meet the most stringent regulations of any country in which they operate at all their locations, and will comply with all international protocols one year ahead of deadline. Conservation efforts involve it reducing total energy consumption by five per cent per year and reducing paper consumption by 10 per cent per year. In regards to water, it aims to reduce draw-down by five per cent annually, and hopes to reach a minimum of 90 per cent recycling ratio in two pilot sites – yet to be chosen – by 2005. The target for other sites is 40 per cent.

Mr Vlatko Zagar, director of the company’s safety and environment division, was interviewed by Asian Water in November 1998 about the company’s pioneering zero-discharge water strategy, where the objective is to achieve an "industrial ecosystem". This is where inputs and outputs of pollutants are minimized, and by-products are designed for reuse in other processes. Mr Zagar said then that such a system "integrates the three major external factors of the wafer fab operation [energy, chemicals and water] into a synergetic transformation, from that of wastage into economic and environmental benefits." It is the many successful steps that the company has implemented as part of this strategy that contributed to their winning of this award.

Mr Ted Li spoke with enthusiasm about what has been achieved so far in regards to the four main "paradigm shifts" that are part of the zero-water discharge strategy: reducing the use of chemicals, segregating wastewater, using a total water management system, and developing "cogeneration" technology. "We try to minimise the reduction of chemicals in the first place. When you use less chemicals, you use less water to wash the wafers – there is some correlation."

Wastewater from different processes has different characteristics, and must be treated accordingly before it can be reused. ST segregates the different types of wastewater, and treats them accordingly. "For example, wastewater from the "backgrind" process, is highly contaminated by dissolved and suspended silica," explained Mr Ted Li. "Filtration by conventional methods is difficult because these fine particles tend to clog the membranes irreversibly." However, the company developed a process where both dynamic EPOC micro-filtration membranes and a continuous de-ionization unit are used together to achieve a near 100 per cent recovery rate of water. This approach is now followed by many companies in Singapore.

For the remaining waste stream, however, the maximum expected recovery rate is about 70 per cent. ST will soon choose two pilot plants for which they will aim to achieve 90 per cent, recovery – thus new technology must be adopted. "What we are working on is ‘co-generation’," Mr Ted Li revealed. This is an energy system that produces both electricity and heat from natural gas. "We want to use this excess heat from production to assist in cleaning the extra 30 per cent of water." Based on current technology, cogeneration is not an economically viable option in the industry. "We haven’t put a price on what it would cost, but at the moment we may as well buy water from the PUB," he said. "Hopefully, within a couple of years, our project will be successful."

Mr Ted Li has been with STMicroelectronics for four years. Although he was equipped with a masters degree in chemical engineering and a bachelors degree in marine biology from the University of Queensland, when he came back to Singapore he spent several years working in a family business. Then he decided he wanted to put his background in the environment, health and safety area to use. "With my biology and chemistry background, this field was very appealing," he says.

He joined STMicroelectronics and realised he had found a company in tune with his own ideas. "I had a very good mentor in Vlatko Zagar. He is very knowledgeable in this area, and I have learned a lot from him." He attributes many of the Singaporean plant’s improvements to Mr Zagar, and believes that the plant, particularly in regards to its environment practices, is among the best in the corporation.

Now that the company has received an Asian Water Management Excellence Award, he can truthfully say it’s one of the best in Asia.

/ Current Affairs