How Sustainable is Your Industry?Follow article
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Is the electronics industry doing enough to be sustainable?
This article was written on the eve of the COP26 conference, a meeting of world political, scientific and environmental leaders. This meeting could make significant changes to the way we live our lives with the goal of lessening or even reversing mankind’s impact on the environment.
We work in an advanced industry that has the capability to create a range of solutions that will help the current environmental situation. Even in the last few days before I penned this article, there has been a range of stories in the media about alternative energy developments. These are all intended to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and in all of these, the innovations of the electronics industry will form an important role in their implementation.
A Huge Fuel Bill
The United States Air Force (USAF) is one of only a few organisations with a truly global reach. Flying a range of combat, support and humanitarian missions, the USAF spends a quite staggering amount of money every year on fuel. Its annual fuel consumption is about 7.5 billion litres. That’s billions with a “B”. If you were to put that much fuel in your average family car, it would be able to drive approximately 100 billion kilometres. That distance is equivalent to 1% of a light-year, or more than 4 times the distance that the Voyager 1 probe has travelled since its launch over 44 years ago. The USAF uses this amount of fuel every year.
What kind of fuel economy do you get?
Image: SrA Whitney Lambert/USAF
In order to reduce its impact on the environment, the USAF is turning to synthetic fuel using a process that captures carbon dioxide and combines it with water to create a carbon-neutral jet fuel. If this process can be scaled up for use by the whole aviation industry, the carbon savings could be enormous. Electronics will be essential for the control and monitoring of the process.
Power From Space
Another recent story discusses the possibility of orbital power capture. This is not a new concept and has been portrayed in science fiction for decades. At the core of this proposal is a satellite fitted with a huge array of photovoltaic cells. These will collect energy from the sun and convert it into electricity that is then beamed back to the surface of the Earth using microwave transmission.
The idea of orbital power collection has been resurrected by our urgent need to reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuel. However, the recent advances in the field of commercial spaceflight have made the concept more attractive. The cost of carrying a kilogram of equipment into space has dropped from $20,000 in 1970 to approximately $2,000 today. This means that orbital facilities are approaching the point of commercial viability. There will be plenty of opportunities for the electronics industry to play a role in this new endeavour.
Power stations in space
These are just two examples of the kind of thinking that we need to save the environment from lasting and catastrophic change, and electronics will be vital to their success. But we cannot rest on our laurels. Are we in the electronics industry doing enough to address our own impact on the environment? Sustainability is not just about using less energy. For our industry, we could describe sustainability as:
Working, manufacturing or producing to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs in their own time.
In other words, we cannot afford to break the planet so fundamentally today, even in the pursuit of environmental goals, that future generations will be unable to survive or meet their own needs tomorrow.
Our Impact on the Environment
The very act of manufacturing the electronic devices that we will need in the future has the potential to cause lasting damage. Ignoring the energy that is required in manufacturing, the raw materials used, and the by-products created by the processes we employ, are of real concern.
The introduction of new legislation over the last two decades has seen the acronym RoHS become familiar to most of us. This stands for the Restriction of Hazardous Substances, and it limits the amount of certain materials that should be used in electronics. The processing of lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium and cadmium, along with their disposal at the end of their useful life, pose significant health risks. While our industry has done much to reduce the use of these nasty materials, there are other effects that we need to consider.
Are we doing enough as an industry?
The electronics industry makes use of many rare metals that need to be mined and shipped around the world. While materials such as copper and gold are not hazardous, the mining industry that we rely on to obtain them creates huge changes in the landscape and uses vast amounts of energy.
Our Fossil Fuel Habit
We also use a huge variety of plastic materials in electronics. Plastics are complex polymers made from chemicals that are most often obtained from fossil fuels such as natural gas or petroleum. The sad fact is that, despite our efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels for energy, we will still have a considerable need for them in the manufacturing industry. And while these products are not burnt like fuel, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, they will still need to be disposed of at the end of their working lives.
The electronics industry has been responsible for so many innovations that improve the lives of billions of people. We have much to be proud of, but that does not mean that we are free from blame when we look at our impact on the environment.
Is this the price we must pay for our electronic devices?
The materials we use, the processes we employ and the energy we consume are all contributing to the state of the environment today. We cannot accept this status quo simply because it is the way it’s always been. We have to look at new methods and new solutions in order to play our role in changing the future. If the USAF can change, then we in the electronics industry can do our part too. We need to look at alternatives to the accepted way things are done, for the sake of the whole planet.
Our first task is to understand the current landscape. Where do our raw materials come from, how destructive is the process that obtains them, and how far do they travel to reach us? Once in the factory, how much energy do we need to process them, and what are the waste products? It would be wrong of us if we did not also consider the whole-life impact of our designs, so we should be aware of how (or even if) these products can be recycled.
In my next article, we will look in detail at the answers to some of these questions. I will also propose an idea that might help you to understand the environmental impact of the components you use.
We cannot sit idle as other industries seek solutions to environmental problems we all face, and so I want to ask you the most important question of all: