Technology Environmental Cost Article | University of Delaware

The Environmental Cost of Technology

Technology is changing our lives for the better in countless ways, but the digital revolution has an environmental cost. From the problem of how to dispose of obsolete gadgets to the need for more power to run computer systems, the industry needs to start facing and planning for more efficient energy use and how to handle e-waste.

It's normal these days to replace your computer, phone, and other hardware every few years, but how to safely dispose of these items can be complicated. Electronics can contain potentially harmful substances such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, which can leach into landfills and contaminate the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency offers information on recycling electronic products and promotes better design and planning of such items to make them more ecologically friendly.

Currently, many discarded electronics end up in developing countries. According to a study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, an estimated 23 percent of electronic waste in the developed world has been exported to seven developing countries. This waste is often burned, resulting in toxic fumes being released into the air. Samples of drinking water and soil from some areas have showed extremely high levels of heavy metals and other harmful substances.

Even when gadgets like phones, tablets, and digital TVs are new, they tend to use a lot more power than traditional appliances, and households are buying and using more of them. One study conducted by Mark Mills, CEO of Digital Power Group, found that an iPhone uses more power than a medium-sized energy-saving refrigerator, when factors such as the wireless connections, data usage, and battery charging are accounted for.

The digital world - what is called the information-communications-technologies ecosystem, or ICT - is radically transforming the landscape of energy systems. It is calculated that the cloud uses an amount of energy annually that is equal to the combined amount of electricity generated by Japan and Germany. In addition, its power needs are only going to grow.

The digital industry is working to find solutions that balance the need for high performance with lower power consumption - and all in lightweight designs, too. One potential avenue involves designs that assign power management functions across the system. These heterogeneous system architectures (HSAs) route different functions to the most efficient processor for that specific job.

With the number of new connected devices expected to continue to grow, and the continuing need for more data centers and storage, the demand for low-power designs will become more of a priority and an important area of investigation and innovation in the engineering field. Learn more about how you can help with the University of Delaware's online M.S. in Electrical Engineering.

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