Whether we call it the information technology (IT) revolution, the knowledge society or the digital age, the phenomenon remains the same. Societies around the world are undergoing real change under the adoption of computer and communications technologies. The implications of these changes on economic growth and social issues are much discussed by the pundits of the day, with some acting as cheerleaders espousing the benefits of IT, some as cynics denouncing them, and the full gamut of opinions in-between.
With all these debates, there is an issue that has received much less attention: the implications of IT on the environment. Information technology, like previous technological revolutions that preceded it, such as the combustion engine and electricity, should have significant effects on the environment, both in the shaping of the nature and scope of environmental challenges and in the tools available to address them The Tokyo-based United Nations University (UNU) has begun addressing the environmental implications of the IT revolution through a research project, the Environmental Issues and Information Technology, which began in January 2001 and is undertaking a broad research agenda examining various facets of the issue.
A recent result from this UNU project has been attracting much attention from research and business communities, as well as the public. "The 1.7 kg microchip: materials and energy use in the production of semiconductors", an article published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, studies the use of energy, chemicals and water in the chain of industrial processes yielding a common semiconductor device: a 32MB DRAM memory chip. The surprising result is that 1,200 grams of fossil fuels, 72g of chemicals and 32,000g of water are needed to produce one 2-gram memory chip. The amount of environmentally sensitive materials used far belies its tiny size--fossil fuels for production are some 600 times the weight of the chip. By comparison, the total fossil fuel needed to produce an automobile is 1 to 2 times its weight and 4 to 5 times for an aluminum can.
Largely because of the high content of microchips and its short lifetime, using a desktop computer is equivalent to a household refrigerator in terms of total energy consumption for production and use. The environmental burden of IT equipment is thus significant and deserves attention from firms, Governments and the public.
Why should making microchips be so energy-and material-intensive? The answer is entropy, or rather the lack of it. With the feature size on chips at less than 0.16 micrometres (1/billionth of a centimetre), the microchip is the most "organized" product made on a mass scale. …