Electronic Design

It Isn't Easy Being Green

With most of the industry finally on board with RoHS, the eco-design focus switches to the slew of emerging energy-efficiency requirements—and how best to comply.

Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the European Union’s Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, what’s next? What new environmental legislation will change the way the indus- try designs its products? It pretty much comes down to two key words: energy efficiency.

The EU will phase in its Energy-Using Products (EuP) directive beginning in August 2007. Like RoHS when it was first introduced, the EU is still tweaking the language of EuP, which calls for the development of more energy-efficient products. Its impact will be significant, with much of the industry already working on EuP-compliant designs.

“The whole idea of managed power is definitely gaining traction in the industry,” says Martin Mason, director of silicon product marketing at Actel Corp. “When chip companies are playing the environmental angle, you know there’s some kind of megatrend going on here.”

The United States—which has lagged well behind the curve until recently in developing, promoting, and procuring environmentally sound products—is beginning to pick up the slack. Curiously, both the federal government and major corporations are leading the way.

In January, President George W. Bush signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to consider environmental issues when purchasing information technology (IT) equipment. Executive Order 13423—Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management— directs federal agencies to include eco-friendly design, energy efficiency, materials choices, acquisition, specifications, distribution, and recycling of electronics in its procurement planning.

With a federal IT budget that exceeds $65 billion, the industry is paying close attention to the new White House order. EO 13423 currently covers only desktop and laptop computers and monitors. In time, though, it will add other electronic products like TVs, imaging devices (printers and copiers), cellular phones, PDAs, and computer servers.

Implementing the policies of the EO requires electronics purchased by federal agencies to meet at least 95% of the requirements of Electronic Product Environment Assessment Tool (EPEAT) registered products, unless there’s no EPEAT standard for such products. Computers and monitors also will require Energy Star features.

EPEAT requirements are based on a set of standards established by several stakeholders, including industry companies, under IEEE 1680, published in 2006. I specifies 23 required and 28 optional criteria across eight areas of environmental impact covering all product life-cycle stages. IEEE 1680 integrates a wide variety of existing regulations and standards, including the Energy Star program and the EU’s RoHS and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directives.

Putting additional pressure on anyone who hopes to do business with the U.S. government, the new EO also calls for every agency to “seek to reduce” the environmental and energy impact on how they purchase electronic equipment. That means they must take into account improvements in the design and materials choices of new electronic equipment.

The EO also requires federal agencies to report their progress on procuring “green” electronics at least annually. Federal agencies with special requirements—the Pentagon is one example—will be given more room to operate when it comes to the electronics hardware they’re allowed to procure.

It’s not clear at this point how much of the federally procured electronics is actually “green” by EPEAT standards. But a multi-agency committee headed by the White House Office of the Federal Environmental Executive (OFEE) has been meeting regularly to develop a plan on how to create a database for this information.

Some research indicates that companies are already picking up the pace in adopting EPEAT-registered products and Energy Star requirements. The Green Electronics Council (GEC), the agency that administers EPEAT, says that about 36 million EPEAT-registered products were sold over a seven-month span last year (July through December).

With virtually all major electronics manufacturers now participating in EPEAT, 2007 sales of EPEAT-registered products will rise significantly from 2006 numbers. The GEC is expected to issue an interim report in the summer. It will include the total number of EPEAT-registered products purchased over a recent nine-month period, with a detailed breakdown on the environmental benefits achieved. Hewlett-Packard established its design-for-the-environment (DfE) program in 1992 and now has nearly 50 products registered with EPEAT. It also introduced two supplier training programs to ensure adherence to the company’s environmental standards, one targeting Central and Eastern Europe and another in China.

In March, Intel announced its support of a new set of Energy Star guidelines developed in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency. The new guidelines are scheduled to go into effect on July 20, replacing an earlier set of guidelines that have been on the books since 2000.

The new Version 4.0 (Tier 1) guidelines set up different categories for desktop and laptop computers based on their computing power. Additional requirements for displaying the Energy Star logo might include shipping all computers with the display’s sleep mode configured to activate after 15 minutes of inactivity.

The EPA’s goal is to achieve 40% support for the Energy Star’s power-management guidelines nationally by 2010 and then boost it to 60% by 2012 and 80% by 2014. Intel says it’s already shipping microprocessors and other systems components that will help qualify them to use the Energy Star logo.

The revised guidelines include suggested settings for game consoles as well as computers. However, they don’t cover thin clients, handheld devices such as PDAs, or high-end servers. The guidelines, scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2009, will refine categories to include systems with quad-core processors.

Philips Electronics developed its own logo as part of its EcoDesign initiative, called the Philips Green Tick, to give consumers an easy way to identify its environmentally friendly products. Currently, seven of Philips’ flat-screen TVs carry the Green Tick logo. The company plans to double that number by the end of 2007.

Launched this past April in North America, Europe, and Asia, Philips says that products carrying the logo “will have significantly better energy efficiency than the nearest competitor products in the same category, as well as having other environmental benefits such as the use of flame-retardant materials.”

Chip manufacturers have made steady progress in producing more power-efficient ICs that meet market demands, especially for portable products. Advanced Micro Devices, IBM, and Intel announced plans to introduce a new generation of processors with increased performance and significantly reduced energy consumption later this year or early next year.

Toshiba America Electronic Components recently introduced a family of 200-mA CMOS low-dropout regulators (LDOs) for portable electronics.

“These LDOs give designers important new flexibility,” says Homayoun Ghani, business development manger for the Logic and Small Signal Device/Discrete Business Unit for TAEC. “Their low-dropout voltage, low quiescent current, reduced power consumption, and small packaging provide a new set of options for circuit design and improved performance for cellular phones and other portable equipment.”

Another example is what Texas Instruments claims is the industry’s first single-chip, interleaved, transition-mode, power-factor-correction (PFC) control circuit. The chip helps lower power-system cost and save energy in consumer applications like digital TVs, PCs, and entry-level server platforms. TI says the PFC controller’s light-load phase management enables a power supply to operate at high efficiency over the range of the load, enhancing system performance and aiding OEMs’ efforts to achieve Energy Star compliance.

Mobile handset manufacturers are coming up with their own clever approaches to improving the efficiency of their products. In May, Nokia introduced a mobile phone that alerts users to unplug the charger once the battery is full. Nokia estimates this feature could save enough electricity to power 85,000 homes a year. By 2010, the company expects to reduce the energy consumption of its chargers by an additional 50%.

Motorola recently received a patent for technology that recharges mobile-phone batteries via solar cells embedded within the LCD display. The company admits the idea isn’t new, but it seems to have solved the problem of getting enough light to the solar cells to recharge the battery.

The solution involved switching from nematic crystals to cholesteric or polymer disbursed materials. Motorola says it can eliminate the use of metallic reflectors used in LCDs, which otherwise reduce the amount of light that could reach solar cells. There’s no word on when they’ll be available in Motorola products, though.

Several consumer electronics OEMs are looking closely at— and in some cases, already designing with—bioplastics for use in product housings for notebook PCs and mobile phones. Douglas Johnson, director of technology policy and international affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association, says that more than half (1.1 billion) of the 2 billion Energy Star purchases since 1992 (when the program was initiated) have been consumer electronics devices.

On another front, Ericsson said in April that it had improved the energy efficiency of its 3G basestations by 35% during 2006. The company’s new software upgrade, which introduced standby functionality for lower traffic periods, can significantly decrease energy consumption and corresponding carbon-dioxide emissions. Applying this feature to the entire installed base of Ericsson GSM basestations could cut CO2 emissions by 1 million tons per year.

The market is moving from desktop to laptop and even smaller notebook computers and from cathode-ray-tube (CRT) to more energy-efficient flat- panel displays. The miniaturization of smart phones and PDAs continues to reduce the amount of materials used in these products.

Apple recently began promoting itself as a “Greener Apple,” with CEO Steve Jobs announcing the phase-out of several toxic materials from Apple products.

“In mid-2006, Apple became the first company in the computer industry to completely eliminate CRTs,” says Jobs. “The effect has been stunning—our first CRT-based iMac contained 484 grams of lead; our current third-generation LCD-based iMac contains less than 1 gram of lead.”

Apple also plans to completely eliminate the use of arsenic in all of its displays. The company will stop using polyvinyl chloride and brominated flame retardants in its products by the end of 2008. And, it promised to issue regular updates of all efforts to become a greener company.

Despite these developments, the use of new materials is still an issue. As Hewlett-Packard points out in the documentation on the materials it uses, “It can be difficult to confirm claims for new materials because they may not have been researched as thoroughly as existing materials.”

HP cites materials to replace PVC from wires and cables as an example (see the figure). The company also says that thermoplastic rubber/elastomer (TPR/TPE) and polyethylene-derived hybrid materials are emerging, even if they haven’t yet been sufficiently developed for wide-scale use.

TAGS: Components TTI
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