Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The greening of the computer

While the specially designed XO laptop, intended for children without access to electricity, is the most environmentally friendly, other computer makers are going green in response to consumer demand

Hot off the production line, the low-power laptops designed for children in developing countries are the most environmentally friendly computer available today.

The XO laptops were created by the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which aims to make low-cost computers available to children who often don't have access to electricity. Earlier this month, the first mass produced XOs started rolling off the assembly line of a Chinese factory.

"Our customers, our kids, don't have electricity," says Mary Lou Jepsen, the OLPC initiative's chief technology officer. "We designed a laptop that can be powered by a hand crank, but to do that we had to reduce the power consumption."

In fact, the XO can be powered by a hand crank, a foot pedal, a solar panel or a string-pull device, something like the handle you pull to start a lawn mower. Five minutes of hand cranking will let a child read a book from the XO's screen for about an hour, Dr. Jepsen says. Some tasks use power faster.

The XO is especially energy-efficient for uses that don't require much processing power because its central processing unit (CPU) shuts down when not needed and wakes up again in a hundredth of a second. The screen stays on, Dr. Jepsen explains, so the computer user doesn't notice a change, but with the CPU off, the laptop uses only about a watt of power - compared with about 20 watts for a conventional laptop.

The XO's screen - which Dr. Jepsen herself designed - is another energy-saver. Like most laptop screens it uses liquid-crystal technology, but it is backlit with light-emitting diodes rather than tiny fluorescent tubes. This is both more energy-efficient and more environmentally friendly because fluorescent tubes contain mercury, Dr. Jepsen says.

With the backlight on, she says, the XO's screen uses about a watt of power, and without backlight it uses only a tenth of a watt.

Altogether, she says, an XO will use seven or eight watts of power at most, and for less demanding tasks only three or four. Most laptops use 20 watts even when idle.

Using less energy is probably its most important contribution to the environment, but the machine also uses fewer hazardous materials than most computers. The OLPC initiative chose a battery design sometimes used in electric cars, called lithium ferro phosphate. These batteries can be recharged more often than the lithium ion technology used in most laptops, Dr. Jepsen says, and used batteries decompose into "something like fertilizer."

If you want to own the world's most environmentally friendly computer, you can. The OLPC group has just launched its "Give 1 Get 1" program, under which North American consumers can buy the machines for $399 U.S. - double the production cost, to subsidize a machine for one child in the developing world.

If you would prefer to buy a traditional computer, though, there are still ways to pay attention to its environmental impact.

A good place to start is EPEAT, a program initiated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess electronic products against environmental criteria.

To get on the EPEAT list, products must meet a basic list of criteria that gives them "bronze" status, while additional optional features can elevate a product to the "silver" or "gold" category. The list of computers and computer-related products is available online at http://www.epeat.net.

The Green Electronics Council, which runs EPEAT, says EPEAT-registered products bought in 2006 will, over their lifetimes, save enough energy to power 1.2 million U.S. homes for a year and avoid the disposal of more than 40,000 metric tons of hazardous waste.

Environment Canada has a similar program called EcoLogo that covers more categories of products. Unlike EPEAT, EcoLogo requires third-party testing to certify products. No computers have earned that certification yet, Mr. Case says, but some peripheral devices have. Details on EcoLogo are available at http://www.ecologo.org.

As the proliferation of EPEAT-registered products shows, most of the PC industry is jumping on the green bandwagon.

For instance, the ThinkCenter A61E desktop PC that Lenovo Group Ltd. launched in September uses half as much power as previous models and 90 per cent of its components can be recycled, says Jordan Buck, national sales specialist at Lenovo Canada.

Toshiba Corp. is working with chip makers and introducing energy-efficient screen technologies such as organic light-emitting diodes to lower its laptops' power consumption. At five laptops with EPEAT's gold status, the company has more than any other vendor.

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and rival Intel Corp. are looking for ways to make idle chips use less power. Doug Cooper, country manager at Intel of Canada Ltd. in Toronto, says a processor at rest uses less than five watts today, but Intel wants get that down to one watt. AMD is pursuing similar goals with its PowerNow technology.

This greening trend is mostly market driven. Todd Smith, director of marketing at Toshiba Canada, says his company is emphasizing EPEAT registration because it has become a factor in government purchasing. And consumer demand is a factor, too.

Electronic waste

25% Proportion of Canadian households that disposed of old computers by taking them to special waste depots or returned them to the supplier in 2006.

20% Portion that put the machines in the garbage.

33% Proportion that didn't know what to do with the machines.

Source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20071115.wsrgreencomputer15/BNStory/PersonalTech/home