Nanotechnology Sustainability 

Circuits of Light


When was the last time you shared massive amounts of photos though Facebook? Streamed YouTube videos through your smart phone? Downloaded a HD video?

There is no doubt that we are moving towards an increasingly interactive web loaded with rich media content. The industry that makes this all possible is collectively called Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). As I was streaming those wonderful World Cup games with just about every other person in the office, I wondered how much energy resources I was consuming, and I tried to put a number on it…

I discovered that this ICT industry makes up about 2% of our overall carbon emissions, but this portion of the pie is expected to become 4% by 2020. So why does it grow faster than other industries? It’s not at all very surprising considering that half of the human population has yet to make their first phone call, and the rise in affordable mobile technology is providing a good entry point to bring developing countries onboard this massive media consumption train.

One major problem with our existing communication systems is that their components are not optimized for power efficiency. An article in The Globe and Mail suggests that by 2018, a supercomputer, the type that would be used to compute climate change models (how ironic…) would consume more power than a nuclear plant can produce! It is quite clear that marginal improvements will not solve the longer term problem, but studies have shown that we could potentially cut down our carbon footprint by 1,000 times if we do things differently. Fundamentally differently.

It’s hard for us to imagine how the electronics that we are so familiar with can be fundamentally different. Luckily, our scientists and engineers have been hard at work. In fact, for many years without most people even being aware of it, IBM and researchers worldwide have been working on the technologies to replace electrical signals with pulses of light!

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Like replacing the coaxial cable with an optical fiber, using light to talk amongst chip components rather than through electrical signals via a copper wire can reduce heat generation, boost performance and consume much less power at the same time. This is the type of innovation we need, and of course IBM is not alone. Collaborative efforts such as GreenTouch formed by industry leaders are aiming to revolutionize ICT and to set an example for other industries to follow.

It is quite clear that a collaborative effort is required to achieve a sustainable future. What is our role in this? Simple tasks such as shutting off your unused PC and monitor may be a good start. If you are interested in seeing how your PCs (or Macs, of course) and your mobile devices add to the overall ICT footprint, check out the figure below.


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