Making Information Tech Greener Can Help Address the Climate Crisis

The design, use, and reuse needs to be improved

4 min read
A dark haired woman wearing white pants and a blue shirt stands in the center. On either side are rows of machines with lights and green wires connecting them.
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In August the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered its starkest warning ever. The IPCC concluded that human influence has unequivocally warmed the planet and changed weather patterns. At the same time, it noted, there is still a window in which humans can alter Earth's climate path. The actions we take to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases can impact the future climate, the report emphasizes.

There are many ways that members of the technical and scientific community can help with this urgent and important grand challenge. One natural fertile area that we can exploit is information technology.

Information and communication technology together are responsible for an estimated 1.4 percent of global CO2 emissions. There are ways to lower those emissions. But the IT sector also holds the potential to help reduce overall global emissions. In fact, a report by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative estimates that IT solutions can help cut nearly 10 times more CO2 than they emit.

Here are several strategies we can employ to address the climate crisis and create a sustainable environment for us and the generations that follow. They can all be categorized as ways to "Green IT," an umbrella term referring to environmentally sound information technologies and systems, applications, and practices. I address them more fully in a recent Cutter Consortium report, Greening IT: Need and Opportunities, which you can access for free.

1. GREENING OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

This inward-looking approach focuses on reengineering IT products and processes to improve their energy efficiency, maximize their use, minimize their carbon footprint, and meet compliance requirements. We can make elements of IT greener, including hardware, software, data centers, and the Internet of Things. To make the entire life cycle of IT greener, we must address environmental impacts and sustainability in three major areas associated with computers: their design and manufacture; their use; and their disposal, reuse, and recycling.

What many don't realize is that, like hardware, software can contribute to environmental problems. Computationally inefficient software can have a major impact on energy consumption, and hence the need for environmentally friendly types, branded as green software.

The computational demands and use of advanced artificial-intelligence and machine-learning systems are increasing significantly. From 2012 to 2018, for instance, the computational cost of advanced AI applications that use deep-learning models increased by 300,000 times, causing a significant rise in electric power consumption and resource utilization. The wasteful approach of throwing more computing power at a problem to get better results has been dubbed red AI. The emerging green AI, or environmentally friendly AI, on the other hand, addresses the issue by minimizing ML's computational demand and reducing its carbon footprint.

As outlined in a recent IEEE Spectrumarticle, AI can be made greener by developing and using a less-power-consuming ML model; creating and sharing reproducible code that will reduce duplicated efforts; and developing and using specialized hardware optimized for AI workload. For more details, refer to this article. The IEEE Special Interest Group on Green AI focuses on issues related to performance and power efficiency in green AI.

The other embodiment of green AI is the use of artificial intelligence as a powerful enabler or tool in minimizing carbon emissions in other key industry sectors, as briefly outlined below.

2. GREENING BY IT

In addition to making IT greener, engineers can use it to help make manufacturing, energy, agriculture, health care, and buildings greener. Software can be used, for example, to analyze, model, and simulate environmental impacts in areas such as manufacturing, logistics, and transportation. Algorithms could help logistics firms optimize routes and manage fleets. Sensors and wireless sensor networks can facilitate collection of real-time data and improve efficiency in a range of applications.

U.K grocery chain Morrisons, for example, uses external and internal data sets such as weather, sales information, and real-time inventory to optimize demand and replenishment—which has resulted in reduced waste, according to industry publication RetailWeek.

Machine learning and other software tools can help guide decisions that could reduce carbon emissions. Electronics company Bosch, for example, used AI to predict its future energy consumption, avoid high peaking loads, and manage patterns of consumption, resulting in emissions reduction by 10 percent in two years.

3. GREEN AWARENESS

Many people are not yet aware of how serious the climate crisis is and how it affects them and the world. IT can help keep them informed and get them more involved.

We can use social media and websites to disseminate information and create collaborative platforms for raising awareness of the climate crisis and environmental sustainability, as well as for promoting best practices and behavioral changes. The WikiHow Environmental Awareness web page, for example, presents information that the public can easily comprehend. On its social media pages and relevant LinkedIn groups, people can post links to news articles, reports, and scientific evidence and videos from trusted sources. They can discuss changes that have happened in their community due to climate change and the practices they have adopted, and they can motivate others to adopt them.

CarbonClick is a platform that generates support for a greener planet by connecting people to carbon-offset projects. It offers businesses and volunteer teams a simple, trustworthy, and cost-effective solution that enables them to develop and manage programs.

We can create a community to take part in climate action drives and crowdsource help for climate science researchers. The Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog lists community projects in the United States in which citizens can get involved.

The UNESCO Green Citizens project is another example. One of its programs, Innovation for Sustainable Development network, brings together key stakeholders. The network also serves as a platform for disseminating information among communities, mainly in rural and remote regions.

Online tools such as those on the UKCIP website can help organizations, industry sectors, and governments address the crisis.

For many companies, green issues have become a priority at the board level. There are several reasons including rising energy consumption and energy prices, growing consumer interest in green products and services, higher expectations by the public regarding environmental responsibilities, and stricter compliance requirements in the works. Environmental issues affect the competitive landscape, so businesses have to create strategies that address them.

But we must look beyond the bottom line. The climate crisis is upon us, and it is the defining story of our times. It is everyone's ethical and social responsibility to do their part to decrease global warming and its disastrous consequences. We engineers and ICT professionals can and should be part of the solution. We ought to exploit the promise of IT and other technologies to deliver significant environmental, social, and economic benefits to us all—a triple win!

Let's pledge—and act now—to create a cleaner and greener planet.

Here are additional resources from IEEE.

The IEEE Communication Society's Technical Committee on Green Communications and Computing has several special-interest groups.

IEEE Transactions on Sustainable Computing

IEEE Transactions on Green Communications and Networking

Harnessing Green IT: Principles and Practices, San Murugesan and G.R. Gangadharan (editors), IEEE Press–Wiley, 2012.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

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