Sustainable ICT through green microelectronics

Digitalization saves resources in many areas, but also consumes a lot of energy. A research initiative now aims to tap into potential savings with innovative solutions.

All major future markets such as AI, new mobility, and smart homes are based on information and communication technologies (ICT) with complex effects on the climate. In addition to direct CO2 emissions from the production, use, and disposal of ICT solutions, indirect positive or negative effects and the influence of user behavior also play a role.

According to a study by the Competence Center Green ICT @ FMD, CO2 emissions caused by digital technologies will increase by 50 percent by 2030. On the other hand, the technologies enable many companies to achieve their sustainability goals in the first place. A Bitkom study shows that ICT (mostly cloud computing) has reduced overall CO2 emissions for 77 percent of the respondents. Half of the respondents see potential for more climate protection in the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, and the automation of business processes. And a third attest to the CO2-reducing effects of artificial intelligence within smart building management or self-optimizing control of production processes.

High emissions in the use phase

Nevertheless, ICT products are a burden on the environment both in their use and their manufacture. The experts from the Fraunhofer IZM expect the absolute CO2 equivalent emissions from ICT in the fields of telecommunications, data centers, and households to rise to around 30 million tons by 2030.

At just under 11 million tons of CO2 equivalents, manufacturing accounts for around a third of emissions and the use phase for around two thirds (20 million tons). Depending on development, that would be four percent of the greenhouse gas emissions generated in Germany in 2030.

Future ICT savings potential

According to the Green ICT study, sensor edge cloud systems, energy-saving communication infrastructures, and resource-optimized electronics production processes should reduce the carbon footprint.

In addition to central data processing infrastructures (cloud), modern networked ICT systems increasingly have capacities at the edge of the network. That opens up opportunities for optimization between the cloud and the edge, minimizing resource consumption during use. The researchers see additional savings potential in the development of high-performance networks such as 5G and 6G, but above all in the production of microelectronic components.

Modular production systems in conjunction with digital tools, intelligent controls and connected systems for machines and systems, as well as technologies such as lightweight construction and additive manufacturing contribute to a significant reduction in greenhouse gases.

Education campaign for sustainable microchips made in Europe

It should not be forgotten that the development and production of sustainable and energy-efficient microchips requires engineers and technicians. There is already a shortage of qualified personnel in the electronics industry, with estimates ranging from 60,000 to 150,000 across Europe.

To counteract the shortage of skilled workers, seven European universities have joined forces with eight other partners from industry and research in the “GreenChips-EDU” project.

The focus of the degree programs is on the design and production of energy-efficient microchips and electronic systems. Demand in this area is growing, as companies are increasingly having to also develop their own microchips for many applications in the fields of mobile communication, AI, data centers, or autonomous driving. Standard processors are increasingly less of an option due to a lack of energy efficiency and competitiveness.

The internationally harmonized degree programs facilitate the cross-border recognition of academic achievements and promote student mobility. Over the four-year project period, 600 students will complete a Bachelor’s or Master’s program. In addition to the degree courses, further and higher education programs are being developed for industry professionals, ranging from short workshops to microcredentials to MBA programs.