Microchips and "dematerialization"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jan 24 07:06:55 MST 2003


The Japan Times, Jan. 23, 2003

OUR PLANET EARTH

Chips with everything makes for a hi-tech mess

By STEPHEN HESSE

If you think that your computer, being such a modern, hi-tech device, is
-- or surely must be -- environmentally friendly, then think again.

Researchers at the United Nations University in Tokyo recently analyzed
the material and energy inputs required to produce a 32-megabyte DRAM
microchip, and what they discovered came as a shock. Their findings have
attracted media attention worldwide.

Microchips are ubiquitous. They surround us in our daily lives, from the
alarm clocks that wake us and the vehicles we ride in to work, to the
cell phones, computers and other machines we depend on throughout the day.

Consciously or not, most of us probably assume that microchips are part
of a swath of technological changes often labeled "dematerialization."
This is the notion that progress in technology offers radical cuts in
the quantity of materials and energy needed to produce goods and services.

In 1998, Eric Williams and his colleagues at the U.N. University began
investigating the production chain of silicon, the chief material used
in making microchips. Two years later their research expanded to explore
the larger environmental footprint of information technology as a whole.

Last month, the first phase of results from their work appeared in
Environmental Science & Technology, a journal of the American Chemical
Society.

At UNU, Williams works with UNU Special Adviser, Professor Robert Ayres
and three part-time research assistants, Takuro Hatanaka, Huahong Gi and
Kenichi Umeda. Their work is funded by the Japan Foundation Center for
Global Partnership, the Takeda Foundation, the UNU/Institute of Advanced
Studies and the Fulbright Foundation.

Williams and his colleagues didn't set out to focus their research on
the macro impacts of the microchip, but on a much broader front.
"Historically, technological revolutions have had a huge effect on
environmental issues, especially the combustion engine and electricity,"
Williams said last week. "We realized that IT could also have
substantial impacts and benefits for the environment, so we took it up
as a research theme.

"The microchip research is part of the first phase, which is to examine
the direct impacts associated with making, using and disposing of IT
hardware. There are also many indirect impacts and benefits associated
with how IT is used by business and society."

So what are the environmental impacts of producing and using a
32-megabyte DRAM computer chip that weighs a mere 2 grams? The UNU team
found that to make every one of the millions manufactured each year
requires 32 kg of water, 1.6 kg of fossil fuels, 700 grams of elemental
gases (mainly nitrogen), and 72 grams of chemicals (hundreds are used,
including lethal arsine gas and corrosive hydrogen fluoride).

To make matters worse, Williams believes his findings are conservative.
"We think the real numbers may be twice that," he said, adding that
rapid advances in technology aggravate the problem. "The fact that a
chip has such a short lifespan, because the technology turns over so
quickly, exacerbates the environmental impact."

Additionally, the UNU article highlights the contrast in terms of
"environmental weight" between microchips and traditional goods, noting
on one hand that "secondary materials used in production [of microchips]
total 630 times the mass of the final product. Compared with this, the
researchers state that an automobile requires only about twice its
weight in fossil fuels to produce -- i.e. 1,500-3,000 kg.

Addressing the question of why the secondary use of materials is
comparatively so high for semiconductor devices, the report's authors
note that, "Microchips and many other hi-tech goods are extremely
low-entropy, highly organized forms of matter. Given that they are
fabricated using relatively high-entropy starting materials, it is
natural to expect that a substantial investment of energy and process
materials is needed for the transformation into an organized form."

Williams and his colleagues are delighted at the enthusiastic reaction
to their research. "The response from the academic and general press has
been tremendous. . . . Perhaps part of the reason for this is that the
results are surprising and also accessible to a wide audience," he noted.

However, the findings have given Williams pause for thought about the
wider implications of microchips and the future of the IT field. "The
main thing that strikes me is that making a microchip uses far more
chemicals and energy than its small size belies, so much so that the
micro-product has a macro-environmental impact. This also makes
microchips and the computers that contain them qualitatively different
from other appliances or products such as refrigerators or automobiles."

In this latter respect, Williams again returned to the automobile
comparison, saying, "The impacts of a car are primarily associated with
the fuel used in operating the vehicle, not its production. For a
computer the production phase is far more important, which changes the
approach to managing environmental impacts.

"For a car, environmental performance is mostly about fuel-efficiency
and emissions standards. For a computer, the main strategies are
reduction of energy used in production and for consumers to maximize a
machine's lifetime. The former is a challenge for the private sector,
while the latter requires awareness and cooperation from the general
public."

Clearly the UNU research has generated as many questions as it has
answered. More answers -- and infinitely more questions -- are likely to
emerge as Eric Williams and his colleagues move on to investigate the
wider environmental effects of adopting IT.

"One concern is how IT-driven changes in lifestyles, and the spectrum of
goods that consumers purchase, affects the energy-use associated with
daily life. This needs to be understood to inform future policies
addressing climate change. Also, a research program is under development
with the aim of applying IT to the management of water and air-quality
in industrializing countries," explained Williams.

As for those of us who spend more time seeking convenience than
researching it, the microchip offers a thoughtful lesson: Small may be
beautiful, but beauty isn't necessarily environmentally friendly.

Find out more about the UNU's IT project at:
www.it-environment.org/index.html

For information on UNU and other ongoing research, visit: www.unu.edu

Stephen Hesse welcomes comments at stevehesse at hotmail.com

The Japan Times: Jan. 23, 2003
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