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Fertilizer Dump Spoils Intel's Pure Water 211

An anonymous reader writes "Intel had to shut down part of its Irish plant for a while because of the extreme cold and the fact the local council polluted the water supply with fertilizer. Apparently it got down to -12 degrees C at the Intel plant in Leixlip, County Kildare. But to make matters worse, the local council ran out of rock salt to grit the roads and opted for fertilizer instead. There were fears that ammonia and nitrates in the fertilizer might have contaminated the local water supply. The problem for the chipmaker is that it needs extremely pure water for its manufacturing processes."
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Fertilizer Dump Spoils Intel's Pure Water

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  • Obligatory (Score:5, Funny)

    by Calydor ( 739835 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @06:12AM (#30960854)
    Well, that's just a shitty thing to do.
  • But... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 30, 2010 @06:13AM (#30960864)

    It's got what plants crave!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 30, 2010 @06:14AM (#30960868)

    Brawndo's got what plants crave. They crave Brawndo. It's got electrolytes.

  • by mim ( 535591 )
    One would think that a company with their resources would have a filtration system in place if the need for pure water is such a priority that the lack of it risks shutting down the whole operation.
    • by HappySmileMan ( 1088123 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @06:35AM (#30960938)

      I was in this very plant a year or two ago and seem to recall them saying that not even filtering was good enough, they actually had to distill the water they got because filtering won't remove all impurities (enough for most practical purposes, but I think the reason they need absolutely pure is because pure H2O doesn't conduct electricity, but the slightest impurity will).

      I find it very hard to believe this same plant shut down because they didn't consider the possibility of their water supply (completely outdoors and unguarded) being contaminated somehow.

      • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @06:44AM (#30960978)
        Somebody did not consider the long-term consequences of their acts. Apparently, whether that was on the Intel or County Kildare side is currently unknown.

        But if they have to distill their water anyway, I don't see the problem. Unless the salts mess up their still.
        • by Seth Kriticos ( 1227934 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @07:23AM (#30961102)

          Distillation only removes sediments (mostly). You don't get rid of evaporating chemicals that easy, you'd actually have to use refining distillation combined with reverse osmosis filtering to get clean water. And that gets slow and expensive fast.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward
            Somebody has forgotten about fractional distillation, which separates everything except azeotropes. Those need to be separated by adding another solvent to the still to "catch" the other solvent, so the third solvent can escape the first one. "There was an old woman who swallowed a bird, How absurd! to swallow a bird, She swallowed the bird to catch the spider, That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, She swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don't know why she swallowed the fly, Perhaps she'
        • by khallow ( 566160 )
          I imagine the problem is ammonia. It vaporizes well and would get past a distillation process.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 30, 2010 @12:58PM (#30963210)

          I work on this site and here's what really happened. Ireland, especially the Dublin area had a 1 in 100 year event, with the lowest ever recorded temperatures, that lasted for over 3 weeks. As road salt was running short all over the country (and across Europe) and it was getting hard to get deliveries into the country, Kildare County Council switched to spraying urea on the roads instead of just rock salt.

          Levels of Ammonia in the local water supply shot up, especially as the water reserves are way below normal (our drinking water at home, 5 miles from the plant, has been shut off every night for 12 hours since 7th Jan). Our systems were not prepared for this as it was such an unlikely event and for a period of several days we were unable to use the local water supply. The levels in the water did not make it unsafe to drink at all, we were unable to purify enough for use in our oldest factory (over 15 years old). The other 2 fabs on site were not affected. We brought water in via tanker until our off-site testing confirmed that it was once more safe for use.

          Quite how this becomes news is beyond me, we dealt with it as an internal matter, laid no blame on the council as it was such an unexpected event, and made no public statements as we didn't want to cause a fuss. I guess someone else did want to rant on about it though...

          And yes, I'm posting anonymously because I'm not authorised to speak for the company...

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by sjwest ( 948274 )

        A book (isbn: 9781846270697) about waste water will tell you that Irelands sewage and water distribution systems are sub par, a couple of years ago the Irish in some areas where having to boil there water to remove bugs.

        Ireland might be a tax free paradise for american corps, but investment in the basics like water treatment leaves much to be desired.

        No surprises here that it got shutdown.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          but investment in the basics like water treatment leaves much to be desired.

          Water treatment is fine, the problem is in the 1940s supply infrastructure, debates in the Dáil have gone on record as saying that 45%+ of the water that is processed leaks from pipes en route to the taps. This is the legacy of the incompetents in charge of the country at the moment, who would rather bow to public sector union demands for pay rises than fix this infrastructure. Not to worry though, the Greens in the ruling coalition are going to inflict a new water rates tax on us to ensure that the un

      • by DrRobert ( 179090 ) * < minus cat> on Saturday January 30, 2010 @10:26AM (#30961974) Homepage

        The water used for chip manufacture is a very ultrapure water created through an involved process using mixed media beds, filters, and reverse osmosis membranes. The fertilizer would have never made it to the chip but would have likely fouled the ultrapure water production equipment as it needs repetitively clean feed water. The molecules in the water actually etch the surface of the silicone if they are not removed. - according to an ultrapure water production class I attended.

      • by PhysicsPhil ( 880677 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @10:42AM (#30962090)

        I work in a semiconductor foundry, although not something on the scale of Intel. Foundries need ultrapure water not to get electrical insulation, but to remove contamination. Sodium, for example, acts as a mobile charge centre in silicon dioxide and changes the electrical properties of the devices.

        Foundries use reverse osmosis filters (not distillation) to get their deionized water, where they push water at pressure through a semipermeable membrane (i.e. permeable to water, not contaminants). RO membranes can get destroyed by unexpected contaminants, and so usually there are prefilters in place to take care of them. Some years ago we lost a (very expensive) membrane when the prefilter was accidentally swapped out but not replaced. My guess is that the fertilizer in the water supply had something that the prefilters/RO membrane couldn't handle, or couldn't handle so much of. Either they lost the membrane or shut things down as a precaution.

        • by temojen ( 678985 )

          Makes me wonder if an electrolysis->fuel cell system would be a good way of doing this... You'd just have to clean out the electrolysis cell periodically and replace the energy lost to heat (hopefully similar to what the RO pumps were using).

      • As a youngster I did a tour with my Computer class at the Intel plant in phoenix. I specifically remember two things. 1)The water was so pure that if you drank it you would get sick and die if you drank enough of it (lack of electolytes, and I'm not sure if its true but it was cool to hear) and 2)If I ever wanted to steal a lot of gold that had a bit less security than fort knox, it would be at a processor plant.
      • I wonder what the real difference would be then between the city using rock salt or fertilizer? One would put sodium chloride in the water, the other would put potassium nitrate or some such (not a chemistry expert - sorry). Either one would result in water that "wasn't pure" as far as this fab is concerned though. Why would it make a difference which pollutant it was?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 30, 2010 @06:35AM (#30960940)

      They surely have, as the water in the water supply are never pure, but there is a difference between purifying normal water, and contaminated water.

      I'd guess their system could not handle, (or could not process enough of), the contaminated water.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is testable. Add 100g of nitrate fertilizer to 4 liters of water, and let it sit overnight. In the morning pour the water through your filter of choice and then drink the result. Delicious right?

      Filters and purification mechanisms have limits, those limits are chosen at design time based on the range of pollutants expected in the input water. If you increase those pollutants by orders of magnitude it's likely the purification system you have just won't cut it.

    • by Xenkar ( 580240 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @06:41AM (#30960970)

      Water filters aren't magical devices. They can only filter so much crap out of the water before they need to be replaced. It might not make financial sense to continue operating the plant if they have to replace the filter for every fifty gallons of water they use.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dbIII ( 701233 )
      OK then, Invent the perfect filter or distillation method and I'm sure Intel will buy it from you.
      • Use water synthesis:

        1. Buy hydrogen and oxygen.
        2. Burn the pure hydrogen with pure oxygen into a fuel cell.
        3. Get electricity in the process
        4. Get pure water

        Sure, the process would not be cheep.

        • Are you sure the glass fiber reinforced perfluoric acid polymer membranes, the platinum colloid particles and carbon particles in fuel cell don't leave anything in the water?
  • by s1lverl0rd ( 1382241 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @06:38AM (#30960950) Homepage

    Intel processors stink.

  • by Masa ( 74401 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @07:05AM (#30961044) Journal
    Why they even bother salting roads when there is -12 degrees Celsius? Salting is only sensible when there is about -4 degrees (at least that is a rule of thumb here in Finland). Also, using fertilizers is so completely boneheaded move because that's plain and simple polluting. I guess that someone made a risk analysis and decided that polluting groundwater supplies causes less deaths than icy roads. But I can't help but wonder what the long-term effects are for environment and groundwater.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It practically never becomes that cold in Ireland. It's quite rare to get sub-zero temperatures here, nevermind -12. This situation was unprecedented. There was not enough equipment or supplies of salt and grit and this was a last resort. It's easy for someone living in a country which experiences this regularly to criticize the actions of a country who doesn't. In my lifetime I had never seen snow at 6" before. The councils and the people were extremely unprepared and I'm sure that the last thing on Kildar

      • by richlv ( 778496 )

        still, "extreme cold" in summary just sounds braindead.

        as for decisions on salting and such, is ireland somehow isolated ? no internet, no traveling chances ? could have tried asking countries a bit to the east how to deal with snow...

        anyway, salting is a very bad thing anyway. it does serious damage to plants/trees, cars, boots and probably doesn't improve water, as in this case. additionally, it indeed only works for a few degrees below zero, thus resulting in complete ice as soon as temperatures drop bel

        • could have tried asking countries a bit to the east how to deal with snow...

          To which the answer is "have deep snow and persistent below-freezing temperatures every winter, so that you can justify the expense of maintaining the infrastructure and experience to deal with it".

          Which doesn't help much when you're faced with a once-in-20-years weather event (after an apparent trend - whatever the cause - to milder winters). How many snowploughs and blowers do you buy, maintain and keep manned if they're only going to be taken out of the garage for a few days every third year?

          Anyway, th

    • rock salts can go down to -12 or something If I recall correctly, whereas afterward you have to use other type of salt (potassium or calcium chlorid?) which go down to -22C.
      • So they should have just sprayed a fine layer of Guinness? That would provide a nice thermal blanket for the roads, traction, and by the time the head forms you'd know it's time to spray again.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jbengt ( 874751 )
      Around here it commonly gets colder than 0F (-18C) and they use salt to good effect. True, sodium chloride doesn't work that good below about 15F (-9C), but if you can afford it, calcium chloride suppresses freezing at least down to -20F (-29C).
      And fertilizer (ammonium) actually works down to about 20F (-7C)
      see more here []

      In practice, a combination of plowing, very high sodium chloride levels, and the action of rolling tires can make roads fairly safe to drive even below 0F.

    • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
      Really? What's wrong with you people? In Alaska. Alaska, FFS. They never use salt. Ever. You plow. You put down dirt/gravel at intersections. And you slow down. Done.

      Oh, and for those that will bring up that the tires are studded, I never used studded tires, and many people don't. I was hoping that the state would ban them (the level of damage they do to the roads in absurd, and the ruts they create cause more damage than the loss of the studs would), but they'll never get around to it, despite c
  • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @07:18AM (#30961094)

    Alcohol melts ice, right? And Ireland is awash in whiskey . . . well at least Killinaskully seems to be. So they could have sprayed whiskey on the roads instead of fertilizer.

    Of course, the road crews would ask:

    "So we're to be spraying good whiskey on the roads to clear them of ice, are we? Do ye mind if we pass that whiskey through our kidneys first?"

    I'm not sure what effect whiskey in the water supply would have on Intel's manufacturing process, but the public wouldn't mind having a wee bit in their morning tee.

    Actually, the general public would be so toasted that wouldn't give a damn about Intel.

  • by twisting_department ( 1329331 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @08:01AM (#30961252)
    Strangely enough Inmos had a similar pollution problem caused by the local water company in south Wales:

    What had actually happened, as we found out three months later, was that on Christmas Eve the engineers at the local reservoir decided to celebrate. They were supposed to stay on site, so what they did was to dump 100 times the standard level of chlorine into the water supply, then go off and have a Christmas party. That chlorine totally ruined our semiconductor plant. The result was that the Americans said, "These Brits don't know what they're doing. Get rid of them!". The semiconductor facility was taken away and put under the control of the Americans who were deemed to understand these things.

    Seems the the Yanks can't defend themselves against this sort of thing either! []

  • by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Saturday January 30, 2010 @08:07AM (#30961274) Journal
    The sites intel left in the USA to be cleaned up by the US gov.
    A generation later Intel now needs its water cleaning up.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by MattskEE ( 925706 )

      Since you didn't cite anything, I will do so from the first Google result. From []

      Low levels (less than 1 part per million [ppm] or 1,000 parts per billion [ppb]) of VOCs were detected in ground water at two Intel facilities
      (Santa Clara 3 and Magnetics) and more significant levels were detected at a third facility (Mountain View "Lot 3"). Since these discoveries, Intel has very aggressively cleaned up these sites. By early 1986, all site source areas had been removed and ground wate

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by pclminion ( 145572 )

      Nice omission of detail there, buddy. []

      In early 1982, concern about widespread contamination in the area's shallow ground water led the California Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Water Board) to send chemical use questionnaires to over 2,000 facilities regarding the use of hazardous materials. Intel Corporation (Intel) was among the few questionnaire recipients that responded proactively by installing ground water monitoring wells adjacent to their undergrou

  • by braindump ( 4788 )
    I just don't get this. Chip fabs don't filter water, they force it through reverse osmosis, and then deionize it. It doesn't matter what's in the water to begin with, after that process is complete, there's absolutely nothing left. This story therefore, makes no sense.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 30, 2010 @09:19AM (#30961568)

      RO is just one step of many to make Ultra Pure Water - Urea has been a problem in semiconductor fabs for a long time - enough can sneak through the reverse osmosis, electrodeionization, ion exchange, etc, to get incorporated in the photoresist, which then breaks down under the UV light when it gets exposed, and splits into two ammonia molecules, which shifts the pH and causes under cutting of the photoresist. Intel in Portland OR added a few million dollars of processing equipment to react out the urea before it can cause a problem.

      How do I know all of this? I make 20,000 gallons per day of Nano-Research grade water, which is even purer than semiconductor fab water. Which means I hang out with the all the ultrapure water people from Intel, TI, AMD, IBM, etc

      Urea contamination is old news........

      • by Greyfox ( 87712 )
        For a second there I though you were going to say you make 20,000 gallons of urea a day, which would be a pretty impressive feat...
  • Wait, -12 C is extreme cold? then what is our current -21 C in Canada? it's not even in the extremes!
  • Water supplies in the US and around the world are being contaminated to unsafe levels by industrial waste, agricultural runoff and mining effluent on a daily basis. Nobody cares until Intel can't use it to make chips? Slashdot is a strange place....
    • Water supplies in the US and around the world are being contaminated to unsafe levels by industrial waste, agricultural runoff and mining effluent on a daily basis.
      Nobody cares until Intel can't use it to make chips? Slashdot is a strange place....

      Nobody cares because the only pollution that matters any more is Carbon.

  • Urea is used all the time in place of salt because it will melt ice without the corrosive effects of salt. Pretty much every airport on earth uses it to de-ice its runways already.

If I had only known, I would have been a locksmith. -- Albert Einstein