Hi-tech pays higher environmental price

Microchips may not be as environmentally friendly as was one thought, says a report on the environmental effects of the information technology revolution.

The microchip’s weight is disproportionate to the negative environmental impact endured through its creation, says a study in a recent issue of Environmental Science and Technology. The creation of a 2 gram chip requires 3.7 pounds of fossil fuel energy and chemical inputs.

“The public needs to be aware that the technology is not free; the environmental footprint of the device is much more substantial than its small physical size would suggest,” says Dr Eric Williams of United Nations University in Tokyo and lead author of the report.

Nanotechnology has often been hailed as a cleaner and more sustainable means of mass production (see related story).

But contrary to the belief that advanced technology will lead to reductions in the amount of materials and energy used to produced goods, known as dematerialisation, the latest study shows that per size and life span some IT equipment energy use is greater than expected.

The researchers traced the life of a microchip, a 32-megabyte DRAM chip, from raw materials to final product, monitoring the amount of energy, fossil fuels and chemicals consumed at each stage of the process.

They found each chip required 3.5 pounds of fossil fuels, 0.16 pounds of chemicals and 70.5 pounds of water.

Compared to a car, scientists estimated that the ratio of fossil fuel and chemical inputs to the weight of the final microchip was 630-to-1, while for a car it was estimated to be 2-to-1. The short life cycle of a chip, approximately two years compared with the longer one of a car at 10 years, further emphasises the energy inefficiencies of some modern technology, says the report.

Williams says entropy is the reason for the disparity in energy intensity. Because high-tech goods begin as highly organised forms of matter they require large investments of energy, say the researchers.

Although more research needs to be done, Williams says their findings “sends a clear signal that energy use in purification and processing of high-tech materials is much more important than generally perceived.”

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