The word on everyone’s chips

Computers are not going away any time soon, so what is major manufacturer Intel doing about minimising environmental impact? Quite a lot, discovers Tom Idle

You may not realise it, but the efforts of the manufacturers of computer microprocessors have a big bearing on the way you do business.

From the efficiency of your data centre to the speed of your internal servers, modern business practice relies heavily on complex technology. And the biggest company behind microchip technology, Intel, is working hard to ensure environmental and social issues are factored into all new product development.

“For us, corporate responsibility is certainly broad ranging,” says Graham Palmer, an Intel veteran of more than 20 years. Palmer heads up sales and marketing for the UK and Ireland arm of the business. “It’s about how we carry out our business, but also about what we do that impacts on the majority of businesses worldwide.”

The third piece of the puzzle, he says, is education. The way Intel sees it, there’s no point in developing complicated products for PCs if people can’t get their heads round them. So, a huge part of Intel’s corporate responsibility policy revolves around education. Through its Intel Teach Program, more than five million teachers around the world have been trained in how best to integrate new technology and project-based learning into their classrooms. Last year, 230,000 students in the developing world gained technology skills through the initiative, working on projects like reforestation in Mexico, or the Special Olympics in China. It is not a cheap exercise, costing Intel £51M a year. “With leadership comes responsibility,” explains Intel president and CEO Paul S Otellini. “Society and business continue to struggle with complex challenges, and I’m committed to viewing these challenges as future business opportunities and areas where Intel can contribute and collaborate with others in a meaningful way.”

“Technology is an integral part of any economy,” offers Palmer. “For emerging countries, there is a need to build that technology awareness right from the start of education – and that’s not just about providing computers to schools. What’s probably more important is training teachers to use technology as part of delivering the syllabus.”

Intel is very serious about this element of its corporate responsibility programme. Most recently the business joined the Clinton Global Initiative to launch an online version of the Teach Program, reaching a further one-and-a-half million teachers across the globe. And, along with other technology companies, it has helped set up UNESCO guidelines to help teachers harness IT technology to improve education, particularly in the developing world.

But while Intel’s educational commitment proves worthy, it is the first two thirds of the responsibility puzzle that Palmer alludes to – the direct and indirect environmental impacts – that really deserve attention. Intel’s obvious passion for innovation doesn’t stop at making new products, but stretches into managing global environmental issues. According to the firm, it has “stepped up to provide leadership” – most notably in energy efficiency and resource conservation.

The former is being led by what is known within the company as Moore’s Law. In 1965, co-founder Gordon Moore made a rather powerful prediction. He estimated that the complexity of technology – or the number of transistors on a given piece of silicon – would double every two years. “Moore’s Law is one of the tenets of the IT industry,” says Palmer. “There is a business and an environmental need to reduce energy; many of our customers are telling us that. But we couldn’t possibly deliver on that unless we were able to implement Moore’s Law.”

Thanks to this forward-thinking business principle, Intel is already set up to develop smaller transistors. Because they are smaller, they use less electricity.

Intel’s Hafnium-based 45nm process technology is delivering greater energy efficiency than previous generations. Moving from 65nm to 45nm technology has enabled a smaller die size, allowing more transistors to be deployed. This has meant a 30% reduction in transistor switching power. Meanwhile, the smallest processor in the range, the Atom Processor – which is used primarily for mobile phones – is based on an entirely new micro-architecture that was developed specifically for low power and high performance.

One of the biggest challenges has been removing lead and halogen from the manufacturing process – two materials that have recently raised eyebrows, despite being used by the electronics industry for decades. But Intel has done it. “From this year, we will be lead and halogen free in our latest ranges,” Palmer says.

These energy-efficient solutions are likely to have the biggest positive impact in the energy-hungry data centre – a place where efficient use of floor space and energy are imperative to meet growing demand.

The growth of the internet is driving the need for back-end processing, so data-centre impact isn’t going to go away quickly. But better processor technology means reduced number of servers, less heat, less cooling and less power being consumed.

But something so small still needs to undergo a manufacturing process – on a large scale. With factories throughout the world, Intel has been careful to ensure that the industrial (albeit high-tech) process has a limited environmental impact. Since 2000, PFC (perfluorocompound) emissions have been cut by 56%. At the end of last year, global-warming emissions were 20% below 2004 levels. In fact, energy consumption in all operations has been reduced by 20% per production unit over the past three years. The sustainability of the buildings for these manufacturing operations are also being considered.

Fab 32 (Intel’s 32nd fabrication plant), being built in Arizona, will be the company’s first factory to be certified as a green building.

More than £50M has been invested in water conservation in the past ten years.

In 2007, Intel recycled or directly reused 87% of its chemical waste and 80% of its solid waste.

But a “critical piece of the puzzle”, as Palmer puts it, is the material used in the production process – silicon, the principle ingredient in beach sand. How will the sustainability of this natural resource be ensured? “I’ve outlined a long-term vision,” says Otellini. His vision is called Sand to Sand, a “decision-making framework that embodies the concept of sustainability and gives us ongoing motivation to make the right choices for the environment”.

On climate change, Intel last year took the step to join the Chicago Climate Exchange – a voluntary, legally binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction and trading programme. Since 2001, 250 energy conservation projects have been established and 500M kWh of electricity saved.

Most recently, Intel committed to buying more than 1.3B kiloWatts of renewable energy certificates from geothermal, wind, solar and biomass sources. This makes the business the number one consumer of renewable energy in America and it gave Intel the top spot on EPA’s Fortune 500 Green Power Partners list.

The US EPA estimates that the move has the equivalent environmental impact of taking more than 185,000 cars off the road each year.

“Our view is that when we make a substantial investment to that type of energy creation, it kick-starts further investment in that energy-creation capability,” enthuses Palmer.

Intel prides itself on its partnerships with community, industry, government, and environmental organisations around the world. The official line is: “The challenges are bigger than any one company can solve, but together we can make a difference.”

Last year, Intel and Google teamed up with WWF to establish the Climate Savers Computing Initiative – a collaboration between eco-conscious consumers, businesses and conservation organisations. The idea is to promote the development and adoption of smarter technologies.

The initiative’s bold aims are to improve computing energy efficiency by 50%.

A further initiative is Energy Star. This is something Intel has been working with the US EPA on since 1992 when it was introduced as a voluntary labelling system to identify and promote energy-efficient products. Last March, Intel released a new implementation guide that helps PC manufacturers and system integrators deliver Energy Star-qualified PCs based on Intel microprocessors and other system components.

So, why has Intel achieved so much in ensuring the environmental suitability of its products? Palmer says: “We don’t have an option. We have to strive for greater levels of efficiency in our own manufacturing processes. “But we also see that our ability to impact on our customers’ capabilities is a great opportunity and one that, through our R&D investments, has allowed us to deliver real tangible benefits.”

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