Apple's silicon teams want to make chips greener

Apple has joined a new chip technology program to find ways to reduce the environmental impact of making its processors.

Apple, Mac, silicon, component, M1, M1X, processors, environment

With COP26 just days away, Apple has joined a new chip technology program as it works to improve its environmental sustainability in product design. It's a move that reflects what is hopefully a growing understanding that every enterprise must mitigate the environmental consequences of doing business.

An obsession with detail

The Sustainable Semiconductor Technologies and Systems (SSTS) scheme will take a deep look at how future processors are made in order to help reduce the environmental impact of making these chips. It’s a detail-based approach that may benefit from the critical successes Apple’s product designers can sometimes achieve. The program is being put together by Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre and aims to “anticipate the environmental impact of choices made at chip technology's definition phase.”

What that means is the group hopes to develop models to help chip designers reduce the ecological footprint of the processors they create. It’s an overt attempt to align processor development with the fight against climate change.

From design to manufacturing

The challenge isn’t just ensuring that chips themselves are designed with environmental consequences in mind: it’s also about developing better manufacturing processes.

While it’s no secret that processors are small, they are becoming increasingly numerous. The number of devices that use processors is growing exponentially, which means the consequences of manufacturing them are great.

Processor manufacturing is characterized by high energy consumption and makes extensive use of chemicals, rare materials, and water. It also generates a huge amount of greenhouse gas.

Where Apple fits in

Apple’s chip manufacturer, TSMC, uses almost 5% of Taiwan’s entire electricity production. It used 63 million tons of water in 2019, and generated controversy during this year’s drought.

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

Those powerful M-series Apple chips may have turned Macs into the cream of the PC industry crop, but manufacturing them has consequences. We know Apple takes this stuff seriously, so it shouldn’t be a surprise the company has joined SSTS.

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

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

The decisions concerning new product design and manufacturing are also in line with the company’s long-term hope that it may create a circular manufacturing system that eliminates the need to consume further resources.  

Towards a green new deal

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

“Every company should be a part of the fight against climate change, and together with our suppliers and local communities, we’re demonstrating all of the opportunity and equity green innovation can bring,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook recently. “We’re acting with urgency, and we’re acting together. But time is not a renewable resource, and we must act quickly to invest in a greener and more equitable future.”

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

“Climate action can be the foundation for a new era of innovative potential, job creation, and durable economic growth. With our commitment to carbon neutrality, we hope to be a ripple in the pond that creates a much larger change,” he said last year.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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