Computers, King Grass and Tidal Power – High Tech News For Earth Day

Computers present a tremendous eco-challenge. With Earth Day ’09 around the corner, let’s have a look at some news on the horizon that may make computing more eco-friendly. But before we do that, let’s talk about some of the problems caused by computers.

Computing Eco-Issues

Our desktops and laptops use tons of power. Most of us leave them on all day, but even when they’re not on, many electronic devices continue to draw power. You’ve likely heard of standby power or vampire power. Laptop adapters are a perfect example of this – they consume power even when the laptop is not in use. On the topic of laptops, energy is also lost because of inefficiencies in battery charging.

Data centres, located around the world, also require huge amounts of power. These centres house the servers that store data for companies the world over and provide our Internet access. While electricity is needed for the servers themselves, the real energy demand is for keeping the centres cool.

Another issue is e-waste. With our constant demand for the newest gadget, we generate tons of electronic waste every year. Most people are now more aware of proper disposal so that noxious chemicals like cadmium do not seep from landfills into the ground, but the best course of action would be for us to reduce e-waste to begin with.


For standby power, the best solution is to shut off devices altogether when they are not in use. Plug everything that is used together (e.g. computer, printer, monitor) into a single power bar and cut the power when you are not using your computer.

For laptop recharging, new technology may help. According to recent reports, Toshiba is set to begin mass production of compact fuel cells for recharging laptops. These fuel cells require a small, swappable fuel cartridge that can keep laptops running for hours without any need for AC power.

Wondering where the fuel for the fuel cells will come from? How about something called Giant King Grass? This fast-growing plant can be harvested four times a year and be used in cellulosic biofuels, including methanol. Methanol is one of the fuels used in the disposable (and we hope recyclable or reusable) fuel cell cartridges that can power laptop computers and other portable electronic devices.

As for our power-hungry data centers, the ocean’s tides may offer some hope. While this technology is far from proven, a recent report in the Times Online talked about the potential of tidal energy in the Orkney Islands, near Scotland. Because the location is so remote, it cannot realistically be used in the national grid. Instead, the planned use for all of this power is a “green” data center.

The current economic recession has proven a boon to the concept of reducing e-waste. Many companies are finding out that they can manage quite nicely with existing computers, supplemented by used and refurbished laptops, desktops, and components. It’s an old-style attitude applied to a high tech world – fix what you have and use “hand-me-downs.”

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