Apple’s silicon teams want to make chips greener



With COP26 in a few days, Apple joined a new chip technology program with the aim of improving its environmental sustainability in the design of its products. It’s a decision that reflects what is, hopefully, a growing understanding that every business must mitigate the environmental consequences of its business activities.

An obsession with detail

The Sustainable semiconductor technologies and systems (SSTS) will take an in-depth look at how future processors are manufactured to help reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing these chips. It’s a detail-based approach that can benefit from the critical successes that Apple product designers can sometimes achieve. The program is set up by the Interuniversity Center for Microelectronics and aims to “anticipate the environmental impact of the choices made during the phase of defining chip technology”.

This means the group hopes to develop models to help chip designers reduce the environmental footprint of the processors they create. It is an open attempt to align the development of processors with the fight against climate change.

From design to manufacturing

The challenge is not only to ensure that the chips themselves are designed with environmental consequences in mind: it is also about developing better manufacturing processes.

While it’s no secret, processors are small, but more and more of them. The number of devices using processors is growing exponentially, which means that the consequences of their manufacture are significant.

The manufacture of processors is characterized by high power consumption and heavy use of chemicals, rare materials and water. It also generates a huge amount of greenhouse gases.

Where Apple fits

Apple’s chipmaker TSMC uses nearly 5% of Taiwan’s total electricity production. This used 63 million tonnes of water in 2019, and sparked controversy during this year’s drought.

It’s not just Apple, of course: a single Intel plant in Arizona produced more than 8,000 tonnes of hazardous waste in just three months this year, The Guardian reports. In fact, some say that the manufacturing of the processors used in our devices accounts for the majority of carbon output from electronic devices, with The Guardian citing a Harvard Study.

These powerful Apple M-series chips may have made Macs the crème de la crème of the PC industry, but their manufacture has consequences. We know Apple takes these things seriously, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the company has joined SSTS.

This reflects Apple’s growing understanding that the environmental consequences of product manufacturing must be considered early in the design process. That’s why, if my sources are correct (which I think they are), Apple’s environment-focused teams now have a say in new product design.

They explore how designs can ensure that raw materials can be separated, recycled and reused. They are also working to identify where replacing materials could reduce the ecological footprint.

Decisions about the design and manufacture of new products are also in line with the company’s long-term hope of creating a circular manufacturing system that eliminates the need to consume more resources.

Towards a new green deal

Apple aims to be completely carbon neutral by 2030 across its supply chain and products. It has convinced 175 of its suppliers to switch to renewable energy and continues to invest in projects and resources (such as managed forests and wind farms) to help achieve these goals.

“Every business should participate in the fight against climate change, and together with our suppliers and local communities, we demonstrate all the opportunities and equity that green innovation can bring” Apple CEO Tim Cook recently said. “We are acting with urgency and we are acting together. But time is not a renewable resource, and we must act quickly to invest in a greener and more equitable future.

Apple’s leader understands that building this green new deal is an opportunity.

“Climate action can be the foundation for a new era of innovation potential, job creation and sustainable economic growth. With our commitment to carbon neutrality, we hope to be a wave in the pond that will create much bigger change, ”he said last year.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.


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