The symptoms of industrial pollution are everywhere in Asia, where pedestrians wear surgical masks to filter the air and urban smog is sometimes so thick that Beijing’s Forbidden City is rendered nearly invisible behind a cloak of soot. Just this month, Chinese authorities canceled flights at Beijing’s main airport amid especially heavy pollution, and shuttered highways in and out of the city.
The implications for human health are obvious; studies show that pollution is shortening lifespans in northern China by five years or more.
Intel engineers in Oregon are now discovering that rotten air is also taking a toll on electronics in China and India, with sulfur corroding the copper circuitry that provides neural networks for PCs and servers and wrecking the motherboards that run whole systems.
“We got the board and it was pretty obvious. You open the chassis up and you see blackish material on every type of surface,” said Anil Kurella, the Hillsboro material scientist who’s leading Intel’s research effort.
While pollution represents a true health crisis in Asia, it hasn’t reach those levels in computing terms. Very few computers fail, even in polluted countries such as China and India. Intel won’t say just how many more fail amid atmospheric contamination than would typically be expected, but it does say pollution makes failure “multiple” times more likely.
As the features on electronics continue to shrink in the years ahead, Intel says computers will only become more vulnerable to contaminants. And since developing economies are, by definition, developing, Intel is increasingly reliant on markets in China and India for sales growth.
So the company is intentionally brewing noxious air in a small chamber inside a windowless Hillsboro lab, to study the pollutants’ effects and, hopefully, devise a solution that protects the computers.
“That’s why Intel gets involved,” Kurella, “so that we understand the physics and technology before it’s become a big problem.”
Intel’s engineers first spotted the issue a few years ago, when it noticed an unusual number of customers from China and India returning computers with failed motherboards (where the microprocessor brain resides and communicates with various support electronics.) Once Intel noticed a trend, the cause was immediately evident.
The basics of the problem are straightforward. Copper is the essential element on an electronic circuit board, an excellent conductor of electricity that serves as a computer’s nervous system, carrying information and instructions.
But copper is also very susceptible to corrosion. And when the copper connections fail, the computer does, too.
“The copper is there to conduct the electricity,” said Tom Marieb, a vice president in Intel’s manufacturing group. “The more we eat away at it the less connectivity is left.”
The sources of Asian pollution are well understood, according to Staci Simonich, a chemistry professor at Oregon State University who has studied the environment in China and traveled to Beijing to document atmospheric conditions during the 2008 Olympics. Coal, burned to generate electricity, produces sulfur. It’s the same phenomenon that caused the acid rain that plagued the U.S. in the 1980s and ‘90s.
As Asian economies expand they demand more electricity, which in turn creates more pollution. The proliferation of cars and exhaust exacerbates the problem, according to Simonich.
“It’s the first time I’ve heard of it affecting electronics,” she said, “but I think it makes sense.”
It was an eye-opener for Intel, too. The company designs electronics to operate under various conditions – laptops, for example, are built to be more robust than desktop PCs.
Intel hadn’t anticipated the environmental challenges PCs and servers find in the developing world. In the U.S., a server might operate in a climate-controlled data center where it’s coddled by large companies that want to protect their investments.
In India, the only way to cool a server might be to open a window at night – exposing the machine to filthy air from a train station or power plant.
“Part of us understanding the reliability of anything is how it’s actually going to be used,” said Marieb, the manufacturing vice president. “What shocked us about this was our assumptions were wrong.”
Though Intel doesn’t make motherboards itself, as the world’s largest producer of computer chips it has the most at stake if computers aren’t as reliable in the developing world as they are in the United States and Europe. It’s hoping that its research will help circuit board manufacturers – who operate in a high-volume, low-margin industry – find fixes it couldn’t afford to develop on its own.
Intel isn’t the only technology manufacturer to encounter problems with pollution. Dell and IBM have both documented similar environmental problems – in Dell’s case, it reported that electronics in corrosive environments typically failed within two to four months.
Failures vary by location, depending on the amount of pollution nearby. In an extreme example near Mumbai, India, The Times of India reported that up to 80 percent of electronics had to be replaced at a mall, office complex and housing development built atop an old garbage dump.
There is evidence that environmental conditions are improving in Asia, Simonich says – or, at least, that pollution has plateaued. But scientists and activists don’t expect the problem to be broadly addressed for many years, perhaps decades.
In the meantime, people living there will continue using computers – and manufacturers will continue to sell them. Intel’s research focuses on keeping those machines working reliably for as long as possible in adverse environments.
The easiest solution would be to replace copper circuitry with something more resistant to corrosion. Gold works very well, and is widely used in some electronics, but it’s too expensive for low-cost circuit boards. Silver is also vulnerable to corrosion – except at thicknesses that would be prohibitively pricy.
So Intel is experimenting with various other coatings that could protect copper circuitry from the atmosphere. Some of the solutions show promise, according to the company, though none are bulletproof.
To refine its solutions, Intel invested $300,000 in a chamber of gasses for its Hillsboro lab and gave Kurella primary responsibility for studying the problem. The company describes the device as a large oven where it bakes circuit boards in conditions that match the conditions it finds overseas.
Lab techs load test tubes carrying pressurized hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and chlorine, calibrating their release to evaluate their effects on the electronics. They suspend tiny bits of copper and silver inside, measuring the chemicals’ effect.
The chamber occupies a corner of a large building that looks and feels like a warehouse, idling under fluorescent lights as the pollutants take their toll. Intel is still evaluating the combination of heat, humidity and pollution to see what role each plays in the corrosion.
In its work, Intel unearthed research done in the U.S. during the 1970s and ‘80s, when scientists found similar problems triggered by acid rain.
A year into their investigation, the Oregon engineers are finding no easy answers. Short of eliminating the pollution itself, early solutions are either too expensive or too inconsistent. But it is closer to understanding the issues at play, and perhaps finding a remedy.
“That really is the first order of business, is understanding the physics,” Marieb said. “That’s what generates new ideas.”
By Mike Rogoway