Embedded environmental impact

October 1, 2007 OpenSystems Media

Design for Energy Efficiency (DfEE) is something you’re going to hear a lot about from the editors at OpenSystems Publishing in the coming months. The news is full of stories on global warming. At the same time, rising oil prices are causing us to once again take a closer look at managing existing energy sources and developing better alternate energy sources. Embedded computing is in a very interesting position because it could have an enormous impact on the environment and energy management.

Embedded computing has been directly responsible for improving the way we manage energy. Better control and monitoring of energy generation and machinery that uses energy have made these devices more effective and efficient. Automobile engines can attain greater fuel efficiency; home heating and air conditioning systems have better results with less energy usage, and power grids can better distribute power, all with the aid of embedded computing. Intelligent devices typically are more effective in managing energy.

On the other hand, embedded computing is also contributing to the environment in a negative way. Hazardous materials used in device manufacturing cause problems when using and disposing of old electronic equipment. This problem is amplified when you consider that many embedded computing devices have short life spans. Our drive to make them better makes them obsolete very quickly.

The Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in electrical and electronic equipment directives emerging around the globe are but a small step in the right direction. Eliminating hazardous substances can only be a good thing. Following the lead of the European Union, most developed countries have launched their own directives. In addition to RoHS, several other initiatives focus on recycling materials and equipment. Many electronics companies are starting to step up and offer recycling programs to end users. See www.electronicsrecycling.org for a lengthy list of companies providing electronic components recycling programs of one type or another. It’s a good start, but more companies need to get involved.

Designers can do their part to reduce the churn of products that drives us to continuously “upgrade” our gadgets. Why can’t products be designed to have longer, more useful lives so that we don’t load our landfills with so much stuff? See my blog on transformers at www.embedded-computing.com for some thoughts on steps we can take to minimize waste.

Embedded computing electronics do affect the environment in a positive way. They make devices smarter and more efficient so that they consume fewer natural resources. But even here, there is tremendous room for improvement. Common technology like traffic control systems could be much smarter about traffic flow management. Just look at how much time we spend and fuel we expend waiting at stop lights or starting and stopping because a traffic control system is not smart enough to adapt to changing conditions.

In future issues, we will be discussing the effect of embedded computing on our environment. Here are just a few of the initiatives catching my interest right now.

The International Energy Agency’s “1-Watt Plan” (www.iea.org) aims to reduce the standby power requirement of devices of all types to 1 W or less.

The National Electronics Action Plan search for Resource Conservation Challenge at www.epa.gov, addresses environmental concerns along the entire life cycle of electronics, including equipment design, operation, reuse, recycling, and disposal. This action plan will initially focus on computers (PCs), televisions, and cell phones.

I’ll also be monitoring various legislative efforts currently in effect or being proposed that could influence designing embedded computing systems for energy efficiency.

Feel free to share your comments by e-mailing me or visiting the Embedded now blog to add your comments.

Jerry Gipper, Editorial Director

Jerry Gipper (Editorial Director)
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