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Understanding Your Impact on the Environment

Connector Geek
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In my previous article, I asked whether we in the electronics industry are doing enough to reduce our impact on the environment. In this article, I will look in a little more detail at some of the activities within the electronics industry and whether we need to be more aware of them.

One of the most effective ways to reverse the effects of climate change is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. There has been considerable success in the deployment of renewable energy initiatives around the world, which has seen the total share rise to 28% in the first quarter of 2020*. Despite this, over 60% of our electricity is still derived from oil and gas.

Energy Efficiency

In the electronics industry, we tend to focus on energy efficiency. This has become an even more powerful motivator over the last few years. The internet depends on data centres to provide the cloud computing and data storage. These data centres are huge and use a staggering amount of energy. Exact predictions vary depending on the source, but the consumption of energy within data centres is predicted to rise to between 3% and 20% of global energy production in the next few years. To put that into perspective, 3% of global demand is more than the current total energy consumption in the UK.

Data centres are using their huge size to their advantage with enormous solar energy installations

The internet giants are very active in reducing the impact of their energy needs with a keen focus on renewable sources and energy storage. The electronics industry is playing its part, creating new products with lower energy needs and greater efficiency. There is clearly an economic incentive, as the internet providers want to keep their costs down. They are also aware of their public image. As more of us change our behaviour as consumers, we want to buy products that are sourced responsibly.

However, I am just as interested in the hidden environmental impacts of the electronics industry. Producing components and devices that are more energy efficient is certainly important, but is that where our responsibility ends?

I believe not.

New Technologies

Some of the solutions on which we have come to rely use exotic materials. The latest battery technologies provide a very timely example. Governments and manufacturers around the world are making commitments regarding the future of cars and other vehicles. Electric and hybrid cars are becoming more popular as an environmentally responsible alternative to petrol- or diesel-powered vehicles. Reducing our carbon footprint is an important part of reversing climate change, but we need to understand the full implications.

Electric vehicle battery technology is still bulky

One of the greatest barriers to the adoption of electric vehicles is energy density. For all the damage that they cause to the environment, fossil fuels offer a very high energy density. A modest amount of petrol, weighing just a few kilograms, is enough to power the average family car for more than 100 kilometres. Until recently, the equivalent energy in battery form would weigh many times that of petrol, making it an impractical solution for vehicle power. In addition, those few kilograms of fuel can be replaced in just a few minutes at a service station, whereas the equivalent battery might take an hour to recharge.

The Need for Lithium

The solution to this problem is provided by the latest lithium-ion batteries which now offer the energy density needed to be a real alternative to fossil fuels. They are also equipped with sophisticated power management systems to reduce the time needed to recharge. Electric vehicles are finally becoming a practical option.

However, one of the key components in this technology is lithium. Lithium is found in seawater, but the most practical sources for lithium are mined in the Southern hemisphere. Australia and South America are the largest producers, and three-quarters of the global production goes to lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium extraction is energy-intensive

The use of lithium in batteries has caused controversy. Lithium is not found freely in nature. Instead, it is obtained from compounds and the process to extract it is energy-intensive. In addition, with major sources of lithium found in some fairly remote areas, it must be shipped around the world before being used in the production of batteries. Finally, lithium is not an infinite resource, and estimates of global lithium reserves vary from 17 to 21 million tons.

There is also the issue of disposal. While lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable, they will eventually lose their efficiency. They cannot simply be discarded due to the health risks of the materials used. Recycling and disposal impose yet more environmental burdens.

Plastic in Electronics

Many devices in the electronics industry use plastic. In the interconnect industry, almost all connectors use plastic to provide the insulator needed to keep electrical contacts separate. Traditionally, plastics are made from chemicals that are often obtained from fossil fuels. The same is try of the rubber from which tyres made. I’m sorry to say that, even when we are driving our electric cars and using our solar-powered, low energy electronic devices, we will still need fossil fuels for some time to come.

Many solutions, whether they are high-performance plastics, lithium-ion batteries or the tyres on our cars, have developed as the best way to achieve a specific goal. Choosing alternatives that create a reduced impact on the environment potentially means compromising on performance or incurring a greater cost. However, new solutions do exist. In particular, plastics are being produced using renewable sources such as cotton or corn, and recycling can be used in some cases as a replacement for new materials.

Making a Choice

The time has come for us to be more aware of the impact that we make in our professional lives. As consumers, we are provided with information that allows to make informed choices. In Europe, any electrical device that we buy is provided with an energy rating, which gives a clear indication of how efficient the appliance will be in use. I suggest that it is time we provide the same classification for our electronic components.

Economy rating for electrical appliances. Can we do the same for electronic components?

A component rating could take into account not just how energy efficient the device is, but also its impact on the environment. This could include:

  • The distance travelled in shipping the raw materials
  • The proportion of raw materials used from fossil fuels or other non-renewable sources
  • The energy consumed in manufacturing
  • The water used in manufacturing
  • The cost and energy requirements of disposal and recycling

The end result would be a number between 0 and 100%, with 100% representing a component with a high impact on the environment and 0% representing a completely recyclable, compostable product. Armed with this information, designers and buyers could make a decision to create a more environmentally responsible final product.

We are all affected by climate change, and we are faced with some tight deadlines to prevent irreversible damage. We all need to take part. As individuals, we are capable of making changes quickly, often far more rapidly than large corporations.

We can choose how we travel to work, where we source our food and how we power our homes. The change that the planet so desperately needs will be made up of billions of tiny decisions that we make as consumers, and so why should we not make these same decisions in our professional lives?

The next time you make a decision at work, whether it involves which component to select or from where it is sourced, will you make the responsible choice?

Because the easy choice might not be easy for much longer.

* https://www.iea.org/reports/global-energy-review-2020/renewables

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. After three decades in the industry, Dave still likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He still loves Lego too. And guitars.

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