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Can we green the chips that power modern life?

ByChrales Assisi
May 03, 2024 05:12 PM IST

As our devices such as smartphones and laptops shrink and cars go the electric route, the pressure is on to make even more powerful chips

Semiconductors are unsung heroes. These chips power everything from our smartphones to electric cars. But here’s the catch: manufacturing them needs large amounts of water and energy. Bluntly put, there is much work that remains to be done to make manufacturing them environmentally friendly as well. To understand what constitutes the Holy Grail of sustainable semiconductors, imagine each chip as a tiny city with its own ecosystem and power grids. The systems that power this city must be overhauled such that it has an altogether new system that includes energy-efficient lighting and waste recycling systems.

The semiconductor industry has historically been a bit of a mess-maker in terms of chemical waste (Representative Photo)
The semiconductor industry has historically been a bit of a mess-maker in terms of chemical waste (Representative Photo)

As our devices such as smartphones and laptops shrink and cars go the electric route, the pressure is on to make even more powerful chips. Semiconductor manufacturing is a bit like a thirsty garden; it guzzles water and energy. In turn, it churns out waste in forms that can be hard to reuse or recycle. As concerns over climate change and resource depletion grow, this industry is being nudged, sometimes forcefully—towards looking at greener alternatives. To drive the point home, Prasanto Roy, a New Delhi-based technology and public policy analyst, suggests we look at Data Centres as a case in point. These too guzzle large amounts of water to function and are powered by semiconductors.

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Also Read: Why it is critical to make semiconductors in India

The efficiency and environmental impact of these places are measured by a metric called Power Usage Efficiency (PUE). It helps us understand how efficiently a data centre runs. Going back to our metaphor of a city, think of it like a report card for the city’s energy consumption. The closer the PUE is to 1.0, the more efficient the centre is. Anything above 1.5 means it is using too many semiconductors and wasting energy. So, while the place may appear powerful, it is bad for the environment because when there are too many semiconductors, it generates heat and water must be used to cool it down. As for Data Centres which scores between 2 and 3, Roy explains, is a terribly bad number to have. To place that in perspective, Roy points out that Data Centres now account for at least 1-2% of the global power consumption. That’s a lot of energy being used up by the business.

The good news is that there is awareness among companies and people in the ecosystem that this cannot continue. Recent advancements in this field are both fascinating and crucial because more sustainable materials are being experimented with. These materials are not just about going green; they are also about using less water. This allows for more efficient power usage, which in turn, reduces the energy demands of devices and the systems that support them.

Also Read: India will become a semiconductor hub in near future: PM Modi

Another critical area of innovation is in the manufacturing process itself. The semiconductor industry has historically been a bit of a mess-maker in terms of chemical waste. The industry needs desalinated water—simply put, brackish or seawater must be treated to remove dissolved salts such that it is fit for human and industrial consumption. This is expensive. But over the years, these costs have been brought down dramatically all thanks to efforts invested by countries such as Israel and UAE.

To put all these technologies together, Intel has been leading from the front and the company has made huge strides in the journey to moving to net water positive says Roy. In much the same way, Google and Microsoft have been experimenting to push the boundaries with their attempts to build Data Centres underwater to see how it works. The initial reports have been positive because they managed to use less water to keep their Data Centres cooler. How this pans out in the longer run remains to be seen. 

The road to truly sustainable semiconductors is long, but the steps being taken appear promising. With each innovation, the tech industry moves closer to a model that’s less like a factory belching out smoke and more like a clean, efficient ecosystem. The impact of these changes goes beyond just making greener gadgets; it’s about balancing the foundations of our digital world in a way that can sustain both the planet and our growing need for more powerful technology.

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