With the explosion of low-cost chips, from Intel's Atom processor to low-power Wi-Fi sensors, just about everything is "getting smart" these days. There are known environmental benefits to this kind of cheap-and-easy digital intelligence, many of them heavily promoted by IBM as part of its Smarter Planet initiative. There's the smart grid, of course, which adds data-rich intelligence to the energy system, but there's also smart water, smart transportation (including rail, electric vehicles, and traffic), and even smart garbage. It's what Intel regularly describes as the "2%, 98%" rule—that operating info tech contributes only 2% of global carbon emissions and can be used to minimize the other 98%.
But there's a slightly brownish tinge to all this greener-through-IT talk. The widely cited 2% figure looks only at the energy impacts of IT equipment as it's being operated, not as it's being manufactured. That's what's known as embedded, or embodied, energy. And depending on whom you ask, manufacturing can be a major piece of the puzzle—from 75% to 85%, according to some research. In 2005 the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an environmental watchdog group for the high-tech industry, estimated that a single fabricating plant could consume as much energy as a 60,000-person city. Which raises the question: Will semiconductor manufacturing outweigh the environmental benefits of the "smarter planet"?
Much of the available research on life-cycle impacts of chip manufacturing has been done by Eric Williams, an assistant professor at the Arizona State University's Civil, Environmental & Sustainable Engineering Dept., and while his results have resonated with some in the environmental community, industry players say the impacts he has found might be overstated. Intel Global Corporate Environmental Manager Todd Brady doesn't mince words: "Our data indicate much the opposite," he says. "Ninety percent of the footprint is as the product is used."
intel disputes the findings
Part of the issue Intel has with Williams' research is that it looked at a DRAM memory chip, which Brady says isn't a power-hog piece of silicon, especially compared to the powerful microprocessors Intel is churning out. According to Brady, manufacturing isn't the most critical piece of the environmental puzzle for Intel's chips—improving efficiency on the end-user side is. Still, Brady says Intel continues to improve its manufacturing system in terms of energy reduction, water-user reduction, and waste reduction. "Every time we do a new product, we establish environmental goals around our energy use, our water user, waste generated," he says. "That goal is part of our target for delivering that new technology."
Let's go back to Williams' data. In one study, published in 2002, he found that every gram of microchip produced required 630 grams of fossil fuels. That's a lot of embedded energy. (Williams compares it, for example, to the 2 grams of fossil fuels needed to produce 1 gram of an automobile.) As chips proliferate, they're increasingly being used in "disposable" applications. We've already seen this, to some extent, with disposable "smart Band-Aids" and the RFID tags used in inventory control (tucked into the books at Borders, for example).
But as heavier-duty chips such as microprocessors come down in size and price, we're likely to see more of these smarter objects with short life spans, many of which will (cl)aim to help solve environmental issues.