Sustainability meets ventures: Micron invests in clean water startup

Zach Kyle | April 2022

It’s no coincidence Micron Ventures is announcing its investment in Aqua Membranes, a clean-tech startup, following the release of Micron’s 2021 sustainability report, entitled “Fast Forward,” which commits to the most ambitious environmental goals in Micron’s history. The investment and report work together to transform how the world uses technology to enrich life for all.

Manufacturing innovative semiconductor products requires a tremendous amount of water. As detailed in the report, Micron is committing to achieving 75% water conservation in its fabs by 2030 through reuse, recycling and restoration projects. That target aligns with Micron values to support the people and communities where we operate.

For Andrew Byrnes, Micron director of Venture Capital, taking steps toward that goal through Micron Ventures’ investment in Aqua Membranes’ clean water technology is a perfect match.

“For someone with serious interest in new semiconductor materials and process innovation, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Byrnes said. “Invest in clean-tech startups to solve massive, real-world environmental challenges? Sign me up! We are looking for investments that will do more than just make money. We want to move the needle on challenging environmental issues, ideally not just at Micron but throughout the semiconductor industry.”

How Aqua Membranes’ technology cleans water

Reverse osmosis is nothing new. The process of forcing water through semipermeable membranes to separate ions, unwanted molecules and larger particles from water has been used broadly for more than 40 years to desalinate seawater, produce ultrapure drinking water and filtrate water used in industrial applications, such as semiconductor manufacturing.

But reverse osmosis technology has been mostly stagnant, requiring significant amounts of energy and space — two resources that come at a premium in semiconductor fabs. Aqua Membranes, a U.S.-based startup founded in 2011, has developed a promising technology that could increase the efficiency of reverse osmosis filtration and help Micron achieve its goal for water reuse.

How does the technology work? Aqua Membranes creates 3D-printed spacers placed inside reverse osmosis systems that can “optimize flow patterns and turbulence through the membrane element. This optimization leads to lower energy consumption, reduced system footprint, improved cleaning and potentially longer element life.” (Check out the website for a more detailed explanation.) These spacers increase the efficiency of water filtration membranes.

illustration showing 3D-printed spacers inside Aqua Membrane's reverse osmosis system to increase the efficiency of water filtration membranes

Investing in technology that improves outcomes while retrofitting rather than replacing existing fab infrastructure is a win-win, said Marshall Chase, Micron’s director of Sustainability.

“Aqua Membranes’ reverse osmosis innovation could be an elegant and cost-effective way to improve on equipment already operating in Micron fabs while increasing water reuse,” he said. “This is problem-solving through innovation.”

How the Boise pilot program works

Micron plans to launch a pilot program using Aqua Membranes’ technology at its Boise site. If successful, this program could be expanded to fabs around the world. Planning for the pilot is underway, and Micron’s investment should help the startup scale for the project.

Micron is diligently working toward its goals for water reuse and other environmental benchmarks set forth by the sustainability report. As a result of the investment, Byrnes said that Micron can launch a water reuse pilot much faster.

“It’s important we adapt, prove out and scale Aqua Membranes technology for use in our fabs, and it’s even more important that we don’t wait for the technology to come to us,” he said.

GCM Internal Communications Writer

Zach Kyle

Zach Kyle is a generalist writer producing a wide range of articles and materials for the Global Communications and Marketing team at Micron. A former newspaper reporter, Zach wrote for the Consumer Products Group at Micron before joining GCM. He particularly enjoys writing about how Micron technology is helping humanity face some of the world's greatest challenges.