What if we build an energy-water corridor for sustainable manufacturing at the USA-Mexico border?

In the past few decades, global manufacturing has undergone an unprecedented geographical shift. The industrial power base of the world — previously located in Western, developed countries — has shifted on a massive scale to other countries with much lower labor costs than in the United States and Europe. Globalization has streamlined the process of manufacturing and delivering goods produced in those other countries — at reasonable prices — to the rest of the world.

But after working successfully for many years — at least in the economic sense — the verdict is less certain when you consider social and environmental costs. Additionally, this production and logistical model has been emitting an alarming, repetitive beep that the world is overly dependent on offshore countries for its needs, and way too exposed to the disruption and bottlenecks that can result from excessive reliance on a single source.

This imbalance became glaringly clear with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Critically needed equipment and supplies to combat the viral spread suddenly were not available, as international trade was interrupted by mandated, precautionary lockdowns in both producer and consumer countries.

We have an idea: Instead of siting all manufacturing offshore, how about if we situate some of it on the USA-Mexico border?

USA-Mexico border: The Energy Corridor

In 2019, a consortium led by Luciano Castillo, the Kenninger Professor of Renewable Energy in Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering, laid out a vision to develop the desertic areas around the USA-Mexico border into vibrant lands of economic growth by bringing renewable energy and water to the border. The consortium included institutions in the U.S., such as Caltech, Arizona State University, Texas A&M, Rice University and Notre Dame, as well as Mexican universities, such as Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez (UACJ), in Mexico City and Ciudad Juárez, respectively.

Using abundant renewable energies like solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind resources to generate electricity and to power desalination plants in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, we could bring sustainable manufacturing to the border, while providing water security to the arid areas of the U.S. and Mexico.

Besides having clean energy and fresh drinking water, this new prosperity zone will have precision agriculture, sustainable manufacturing, centers for workforce development, and the world’s largest-ever innovation park. On scale, the overall project will compare to the Panama Canal, as it will be necessary to deploy pipelines for water and electric grid along the 2,000-mile border.

The pandemic exposed the weaknesses of our neighboring countries’ manufacturing strategies and capabilities. We propose to use the region to bring significant maker capacity to both sides of the border, creating green jobs in energy generation, water production, and sustainable manufacturing.

Semiconductor fabrication plants (fabs) in Arizona

As an example, two of the three major players in semiconductor fabrication are undertaking large development projects near Phoenix, less than 200 km (125 miles) from the USA-Mexico border. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world leader in semiconductor wafer production, is building a 5-nanometer fabrication plant (fab) in the area (a $12 billion project), with completion set for 2024. Intel is adding two chip factories to its wafer production facilities in Phoenix — at a cost of $20 billion, which will make it the largest project ever for the state of Arizona.

These plants will be a major economic booster for the region in terms of job generation and commerce. As part of our proposal, building the infrastructure to supply desalinized water to these and other projects in the area could generate nearly 15,000 direct and indirect jobs during the construction phase, plus more than 400 direct and indirect positions when the project is operational.

Both of these semiconductor fab projects will require enormous amounts of water during construction and operation, in a region that is mostly desertic. TSMC will withdraw some 21 million liters per day (4.7 million gallons) during operation. Both TMSC and Intel will have water recovery technologies in their facilities. For example, Intel is able to return to the aquifer an estimated 95 percent of water used and is aiming to achieve net positive water use by 2030. However, return is not instantaneous, and the companies will need to tap into diminishing water resources to meet their needs.

Proposed water-energy infrastructure for the development of the USA-Mexico border area. (Image credit: The Energy Corridor)

The region around the USA-Mexico border is one of the driest on the planet, a fact that has limited its development. As a result of climate change and population growth, replenishment of hydric resources through the natural water cycle is insufficient to compensate for water consumption, decreasing the already-scarce water resources available. If these concerns are not addressed, ambitious projects like the semiconductor fabs could face an existential challenge.

Our solution builds on the relatively short distance between the Gulf of California and the Phoenix area. A desalination project in the Gulf of California could be used to supply desalinized water not only to Phoenix but also to other locations in Mexico and the U.S. The potential routes do not present substantial natural obstacles to pipeline installation. That makes this area around the border strategically positioned for the new economy, given its abundance of renewable energy resources that can power the reverse osmosis processes and the water pumping of the desalinization process.

Such full-scale energy-water facilities, also used for research, training and testing of novel initiatives and innovations, will midwife new knowledge and expertise to help reduce costs of both renewable energy and water desalination. Introducing sustainable manufacturing along the border — supplied with this renewable energy and water, and with workforce training — could bring new wealth and a higher standard of living to the border, which has been an area of hardscrabble living. These energy projects also could increase the value of the land, creating more wealth for landowners, while addressing the global shortage of microprocessors.

For Mexico, our second-largest trading partner, this infrastructure initiative could transform the conversation — and the reality — about the border from negative rhetoric to positive prosperity.

Luciano Castillo

Kenninger Professor of Renewable Energy and Power Systems

School of Mechanical Engineering

Purdue University, College of Engineering

Consortium Lead, The Energy Corridor (TEC)

Walter Gutierrez

Postdoctoral Research Associate

School of Mechanical Engineering

Purdue University, College of Engineering

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Purdue College of Engineering

Purdue College of Engineering

Purdue Engineering is ranked top 10 nationwide by USNWR.