The Sustainability Chip

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I want to challenge us to think of semiconductors as “sustainability chips.”

Semiconductors enable billions of actions around the world each day. Every time a device senses, thinks, connects or acts, these tiny brains control the flow of electrons that enable the operational decision-making on which devices rely, ranging from countertop digital assistants and video game consoles to medical diagnostics, intelligent transportation systems and multinational power grids.

The relevance of chips to delivering sustainability outcomes is already apparent in helping reduce and manage energy in smart cities, transportation and buildings, directly reducing carbon emissions. Hundreds of millions of electronic devices worldwide use power adapters to convert grid energy into lower levels, and semiconductors are helping transform energy usage from always on or off to more graded and matched states that anticipate our needs. Smarter use is more sustainable use.

But their sustainability impact could be much greater if we challenge ourselves to think differently. Here are three broad areas to consider:

1. Improved Efficiency

Lower energy use is one way to measure sustainable impact. Another is better use, which means getting more performance for the same energy cost (from existing or a greater number of devices). Semiconductors are positioned to do this through:

• Greater visibility: Many battery indicators on mobile devices simply show remaining charge, but imagine if they provided visibility into usage rates? Extend that model to entire homes and commercial systems where more devices could run longer on the same amount of energy. Improving the accuracy of visibility with more powerful chips could also enable devices to anticipate user needs and automate energy usage appropriately.

• Better performance: As I noted above, the days of devices being simply on or off are over. PCs already fall into sleep mode, and businesses use automatic lighting. But chip-enabled AI/ML at the points of use or at the edge (called edge computing) could also support more levels of energy. Additionally, shifting more processing to local devices instead of powering constant internet connectivity would lower energy use.

• Quicker recharge: Not all charging is equal. Different batteries discharge and acquire charge at different rates that change with the vagaries of geographic location (like elevation) and weather. The idea of adaptive intelligent charging — providing energy when and as needed — has a lot of promise for maximizing battery performance.

2. Increased Uptime

It’s not immediately obvious, but when things break down, they’re less sustainable, by definition. Failing machines and systems run poorly, not to mention the higher costs of resources and time to compensate for those failures. Semiconductors can improve uptime through:

• Condition monitoring: How many times have you experienced a vague ailment like feeling out of sorts or somewhat tired? Electrical devices encounter the same conundrum, and just as the insights provided by wearable tech sensors allow us to monitor our own conditions, chips enable that oversight and better, more sustainable responses to industrial infrastructure.

• Predictive maintenance: Machines that operate below peak levels are less sustainable. The semiconductors inside them can prompt service and repair long before overt cues could. Consistency is a core tenet of sustainability.

• Adaptive management: Systems and networks constantly adapt depending on circumstances, such as the increased needs from a gas pipeline system in winter or greater demands for traffic data sharing during rush hour. While these adaptions are already well established, we could use chip-based intelligence to be even more responsive.

3. Improved Lifetime

If our devices lasted longer, we’d reduce waste, so it should be a design imperative to reimagine devices and systems that will endure. Semiconductors can empower that through:

• Less wear: Just think how as drivers we tend to brake too often, or how split seconds of unnecessary factory operations would add up, and it’s clear we work our “machines” more than necessary. Enabling better alignment of responses and requirements would make these machines last longer and thereby be more sustainable.

• Easier upgrades: Better visibility into more nuanced performance attributes enables more targeted opportunities for upgrades. So, a sensor that monitors wheels on an automobile could be updated to accommodate the conditions of the roads it drives on and, ideally, its owner’s driving habits. Updating components, devices and entire systems would extend productive lifetimes.

• New uses: Similar to the upgrade potential, devices equipped with semiconductors can be put to new uses via OTA updates and/or new controller instructions. For instance, a home’s security network might be repurposed to also sense exterior temperature and help manage energy use. Every time we find a new use for an existing tool, we’ll save tremendous costs and materials.

When we think of smart technology, we often default to conversations about massive artificial intelligence making big decisions, but meanwhile, semiconductors are making billions of smaller decisions in our everyday lives.

What we do with the chips on which smart technology is built will help us to reimagine a world filled with experiences that anticipate and automate our needs.

It starts with reimagining a semiconductor as a sustainability chip.

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