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Chipmaking’s Next Big Thing Guzzles as Much Power as Entire Countries

Smaller and more energy-efficient semiconductors increasingly require so much electricity that Asia is going to have a tough time quitting fossil fuels.

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Illustration: Timo Lenzen for Bloomberg Businessweek

The machines needed to make the world’s most advanced semiconductors are miracles of modern engineering. Known as extreme ultraviolet lithography systems, or EUVs, they bathe silicon wafers with waves of light invisible to the human eye, burning patterns into materials on the wafer’s surface that need to be exact within a few nanometers. To create the specialized light, EUVs vaporize molten tin with lasers, then use mirrors to focus the radiance into thinner wavelengths. Only one company in the world— ASML Holding NV of the Netherlands—makes the bus-size devices, which cost more than $150 million and consist of 100,000 separate components.

EUVs are also a prime illustration of how the push to make semiconductors that are smaller, more capable, and more energy-efficient is leading to manufacturing processes that are more complicated and energy-intensive. Each machine is rated to consume about 1 megawatt of electricity, about 10 times more than previous generations of equipment. With no alternative available to make the most advanced kinds of semiconductors, the chip industry is a potentially significant stumbling block to the drive to reduce global carbon emissions.