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An Eco Laptop - Ways to Make Laptops Green

The annual sale of laptops is expected to reach 150 million in 2009, and with the average consumer keeping their laptop for only three years, researchers are looking into laptop technology that's a little friendlier toward the environment. Popular Science has recently reported on the most ingenious ideas for the future of the green laptop.

Today's laptops might one day be compared to the diesel trucks of the ‘50s, at least in the sense that both could be greatly improved in the area of environmental health. While they don't spit out tons of carbon dioxide, laptops do have their share of problems. They guzzle power, contain toxic components, pose recycling problems, and are adding to our landfills.

However, the future might not be so grim, as long as a number of researchers are taking steps toward improving the laptop. For example, currently an LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) hogs half a laptop's power due to its fluorescent backlight, and LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) do only a little better. In the future, though, displays may be made of OLEDs (Organic Light Emitting Diodes), which use electroluminescent films and are already cutting power in the small displays of many cell phones.

Overall, laptops require a large amount of power to run, which they currently receive from the grid. But companies are already coming out with portable solar chargers, and one company, MSI Computer, has designed a laptop with solar cells integrated into its case.

But there's also the problem of what to do with obsolete computers. Currently, the EPA estimates that 19,000 tons of laptops are thrown away every year in the US alone. Some companies are trying to make it easier and cheaper for people to upgrade the laptops they already have, rather than throwing them away and buying new ones. A company called Asus has recently released a laptop that enables people to change the processor, graphics card and other parts just by removing one panel, instead of spending hours disassembling the computer.

But when laptops are trashed, some of the components are toxic and can leak poisons in the ground. To address this issue, some countries have begun setting limits on the toxic components, such as replacing lead solder with silver or copper.

Researchers are also investigating ways to make it easier to recycle computers. Currently, recycling is very time-consuming because salvagers have to search for parts in laptops that may or may not be there. Some manufactures may be adding RFID tags to laptops that contain all the information on what kinds of parts are inside.

Other components of laptops can also be improved by environmental standards. For example, by replacing hard drives with flash memory, energy consumption could be cut by 10 percent and data storage still be increased. Also, the petroleum-filled plastic cases require a good deal of oil and energy to produce, but a few companies are investigating making cases out of bioplastics, such as corn polymers, to save energy.

Finally, a new Texas Instruments manufacturing plant will decrease the vast amount of energy required to fabricate laptops-which is currently nearly the same amount of energy that it will use for the rest of its life. The new plant will consume 20% less electricity among other savings, with one of its innovations being using the excess heat from air conditioners to warm water for free.

From the article in Popular Science, it appears that the technology to make more environmentally friendly laptops is very plausible, or even already exists. Hopefully, more companies will invest some time and money into making changes like these, regardless of any immediate impact on profit. I would guess that the first company to develop a well-rounded eco laptop at a reasonable price would have a large market of consumers at their doorstep.

Lisa Zyga
Science Blogger