Microchips and the Environment

E-mail may have saved us from cutting down a few trees, but the microchips which power every modern computer and can be found in everything from phones to appliances to our pets are apparently anything but environmentally friendly. This Scientific American article discusses the staggering amount of raw material which gets processed to form a microchip.

The article notes, "The team found that the materials involved in making a 32-MB RAM microchip total 630 times the mass of the final product." The reason, it points out, is that the materials have to be refined quite a bit until they can be used in these infernal machines we call computers. What the article doesn't point out is that, as computers get faster, the chips which power them get smaller and the tolerances go down. So, the ratio of raw material to final product is, ostensibly getting worse over time, meaning we have to mine more and more raw material to produce fewer and fewer microchips.

Of course, the current microchip architecture will face other hurdles in the near future. Specifically, electricity will only move so fast, and we can't make a layer of silicon thinner than a single molecule. These limitations may necessitate a switch to another computing model, such as quantum computing before most people are even aware that the current model is destroying our environment.

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