Cleaning with green tea

Your average computer is a toxic rat's nest of earth-unfriendly materials, from the chemicals used in its production to the soon-to-be obsolete parts that will lie in landfills from here to eternity. But some companies and researchers are looking for ways to reduce the polluting overhead of digital tech.

Scientists at Ventana Research Inc., Pace Technologies and the University of Arizona, for instance, last spring discovered a new use for green tea that could ultimately lead to hard drives that are far less toxic than those currently produced. The tea is used in a slurry for polishing the read-write heads of drives -- a process that currently requires toxic, nonbiodegradeable compounds that are dangerous and require expensive disposal procedures.

The scientists also claim that the brew actually works better than existing methods. "One customer has been purchasing pilot plant quantities from us and has already polished some 10,000 read-write heads with this fluid," says John Lombardi, president of Ventana Research and the lead scientist on the project.

That is, of course, the best-case scenario, when an eco-friendly technology proves more effective than what it replaces. In some cases, however, there's a price to pay for going green -- often, it's literally a price.

Pioneer Corp., for instance, last fall announced Blu-ray discs made largely from cornstarch (Blu-ray offers a storage capacity of around 25GB). Unlike those made from more typical polymers, the cornstarch discs biodegrade fairly rapidly (in less than 100 years). And if burned, the discs wouldn't produce any toxic chemicals.

Unfortunately, the discs (such as the corn-based Sanyo MildDisc CD-ROMs) are pricier than their plain plastic competition. Sanyo Corp. says its discs currently cost about three times as much as normal polymer discs, but it hopes to reduce the cost to nearly the same as other technologies over time.

Discs are not the only corny PC option, either. NEC Japan announced last fall that it planned to make the cases for 10% of its laptop line out of corn-based, biodegradeable materials by 2010.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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