GlobeGlance: Environmental Implications of Microchips

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Whether we call it the information technology (IT) revolution, the knowledge society or the digital age, the phenomenon remains the same. Societies around the world are undergoing real change by adopting computer and communications technologies. The implications of these changes on economic growth and social issues are much discussed by today’s pundits, with some acting as cheerleaders espousing the benefits of IT, some as cynics denouncing them, and the full gamut of opinions in-between.

With all these debates, there is an issue that has received much less attention: the implications of IT on the environment. Information technology, like previous technological revolutions that preceded it, such as the combustion engine and electricity, will likely have significant effects on the environment, both in the shaping of the nature and scope of environmental challenges and in the tools available to address them. The Tokyo-based United Nations University (UNU) has begun addressing the environmental implications of the IT revolution through a research project, the Environmental Issues and Information Technology, which began in January 2001 and is undertaking a broad research agenda examining various facets of the issue.

A recent result from this UNU project has been attracting much attention from research and business communities, as well as the public. “The 1.7 kg microchip: materials and energy use in the production of semiconductors”, an article published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, studies the use of energy, chemicals and water in the chain of industrial processes yielding a common semiconductor device: a 32MB DRAM memory chip. The surprising result is that 1,200 grams of fossil fuel, 72g of chemicals and 32,000g of water are needed to produce one 2-gram memory chip. The amount of environmentally sensitive materials used far belies its tiny size — fossil fuels for production are some 600 times the weight of the chip. By comparison, the total fossil fuel needed to produce an automobile is 1 to 2 times its weight and 4 to 5 times for an aluminum can.

Largely because of the high content of microchips and its short lifetime, using a desktop computer is equivalent to a household refrigerator in terms of total energy consumption for production and use. The environmental burden of IT equipment is thus significant and deserves attention from firms, governments and the public.

Why should making microchips be so energy- and material-intensive? The answer is entropy, or rather the lack of it. With the feature size on chips at less than 0.16 micrometres (1/billionth of a centimetre), the microchip is the most “organized” product made on a mass scale.

Everything put into the chip-making process must be exceedingly pure, and the environment in fabrication facilities must be carefully controlled to maintain that purity. Achieving this requires energy and chemical processing far exceeding the actual mass of the final products. While the microchip is clearly an extreme case, the results raise the question of how much extra environmental impacts are needed to produce high-tech products and materials.

There are also environmental issues associated with disposing IT equipment. Rapid technological change in the industry implies that the effective usable lifetime of many products is short, leading to mountains of unwanted obsolete devices. Cases have arisen in the developing region of Asia of environmentally disastrous recycling of end-of-life computers from the developed world. Concern over the environmental risks of IT equipment landfill has driven legislative initiatives mandating collection and environmentally friendly recycling of equipment. Recently-passed legislation in countries of the European Union, for example, mandates tough targets for collection and recycling, and bans the use of lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated flame retardants in most equipment.

What about the environmental benefits of using chips—aren’t these bigger than the cost of producing them? This is a key question, but the issue is complex and the answer is not yet known. Improved flow and the capacity to analyze information enhance many aspects of environmental management. Social and business changes enabled by information technology such as e-commerce are more efficient from economic and (often) environmental perspectives. Telecommuting, for example, represents a great opportunity to reduce environmental impacts associated with using automobiles. However, IT also stimulates consumption through enhancing economic growth, lowering consumer prices and expanding opportunities to consume. While much remains unclear about the environmental implications of IT, a basic truth stands out: just as with previous technological revolutions, societies around the world must adapt to minimize the negative environmental aspects of information technology while maximizing the positive ones.

Regard sur la planète

Eric Williams

UN Chronicle, online edition no. 4


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