Microchips weigh heavily on environment

The production of a microchip requires a hefty amount of materials, energy and water, according to a study.

3 min read
The production of a microchip requires a hefty amount of materials, energy and water, and has an environmental impact that far outweighs its miniature size, according to a study.

Researchers estimate that producing a single 2-gram chip used for memory in personal computers requires at least 3.7 pounds of fuel and chemicals. The study, funded in part by the Fulbright Foundation, will appear in the December print edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

The researchers, who included Eric Williams from the United Nations University in Tokyo and Miriam Heller of the National Science Foundation, followed a 32MB dynamic RAM chip through every level of its production. What they found was that producing a chip required 3.5 pounds of fossil fuels, nearly a quarter pound of chemicals, about 70 pounds of water and 1.5 pounds of gases such as nitrogen.

"The public needs to be aware that the technology is not free," said Williams, the lead author of the paper. "The environmental footprint of the device is much more substantial than its small physical size would suggest."

The results reinforce a growing call to regulate the production and disposal of personal computers. Earlier this year, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., introduced the Computer Hazardous-Waste Infrastructure Program (CHIP) Act, pointing to the potential environmental harm from some of the materials that make up a computer. He asserted that 70 percent of heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, in U.S. landfills comes from electronic waste.

Compounding the issue, environmentalists say, is the perpetual upgrade cycle as people seek out newer, more powerful computer models.

Because it's so small, the microchip has been upheld by many in the industry as a prime example of dematerialization--the concept that as technology progresses, the materials and energy required to manufacture the final products should be lower. But the study calls into question this long-held assumption.

A microchip's energy and material requirements stand out in comparison with those for an automobile. The study notes that one passenger car needs about 3,300 pounds of fossil fuel. Although that's far greater than what?s needed for a microchip, the study says that the ratio of the manufacturing phase's fossil fuel and chemical inputs to the weight of the final product is about 2-to-1 for a car, but 630-to-1 for a microchip.

The disparity stems from entropy, or the amount of disorder in a system, the researchers said. Microchips and other high-tech goods are considered extremely low-entropy, highly organized forms of matter. But they are created out of high-entropy starting materials that require large amounts of energy to be transformed into low-entropy materials, the study shows.

The researchers found that there is a general trend toward lower entropy of goods overall, which could imply a continuing rise in the amount of energy and chemicals required to produce an increasing number of high-tech products, including cell phones, notebook computers, desktops systems, servers and gaming systems.

The study, however, concedes that it is unclear how much this high-energy impact is offset by savings from increases in processing efficiency.