A Moment of Science

Microchip Waste

When it comes to machines that pollute the environment, computers are usually left off the most wanted list.Computers have no exhaust pipes or smokestacks belching smog-inducing smoke into the atmosphere. If they did, we probably wouldn’t keep computers on or under our desks where they quietly and cleanly go about their business. Or do they?

According to a report published in the journal Environment Science & Technology , computers are more environmentally abusive than we tend to think. Microchips, those tiny and much heralded silicon wafers that allow computers to do their thing, are voracious consumers of water, fossil fuels, chemicals, and gasses such as nitrogen. Specifically, producing a single microchip requires over three pounds of fossil fuels, almost a quarter pound of toxic chemicals such as hydrogen fluoride and arsine, seventy pounds of water, and over a pound of nitrogen.

While those numbers may not sound overwhelming, consider them in relation to the size of a single chip. By comparison, building a single passenger car consumes roughly thirty-three-hundred pounds of fossil fuel. But proportionate to its weight, producing a car requires relatively less fossil fuel and chemicals than microchip production.

Since microchips are produced by the millions every year, the aggregate effect on the environment is much more substantial than previously thought. So if you want to do your part to cut down on microchip pollution, try holding on to your current computer instead of rushing out to buy a more powerful machine. Lessening stress on the environment by not giving in to the urge to acquire a bit more processing oomph may just be worth its weight in fossil fuels.

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