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Originally published Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 8:04 PM

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Air pollution sickening computers too

Intel researchers in Oregon are looking for ways to protect digital circuits from corrosion caused by sulfurous air pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants. It’s an emerging problem in China, India and other developing countries.


The Associated Press

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HILLSBORO, Ore. — In a windowless lab at its Hillsboro campus, Intel scientists are brewing foul air so they can study the effects of air pollution on the innards of computers — a step toward figuring out how to protect electronics in markets such as India and China that have big pollution problems and the potential for big sales growth.

So far, the scientists tell The Oregonian newspaper, there have been no breakthroughs as they load test tubes of pressurized hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and chlorine, and calibrate their effects on electronics.

Intel engineers spotted the problem a few years ago, when the company noticed an unusual number of customers from China and India returning computers with failed motherboards, the component that houses the microprocessor brains.

The culprit is sulfurous air pollution produced by coal that’s burned to generate electricity. It corrodes the copper circuitry that provides neural networks for PCs and servers.

Intel doesn’t make motherboards itself, but as the world’s largest producer of computer chips it is increasingly reliant on sales in China and India and has the most at stake if computers aren’t as reliable in the developing world as they are in the United States and Europe.

A year into their investigation, the Oregon engineers say early solutions are either expensive or inconsistent. But they are closer to understanding the issues.

“That really is the first order of business, is understanding the physics,” said Tom Marieb, a vice president in Intel’s manufacturing group. “That’s what generates new ideas.”

Copper substitutes such as gold are cost-prohibitive. So Intel is looking at coatings to protect the copper, and scientists say some are promising.

To refine its solutions, Intel invested $300,000 in a chamber of gasses for its Hillsboro lab. The company describes the device as a large oven where circuit boards are baked in conditions that match the overseas pollution.

In the U.S., servers operate in climate-controlled data centers, but in developing countries they are much more exposed to the elements.

In India, for example, the only way to cool a server might be to open a window at night, exposing the machine to pollution.

“Part of us understanding the reliability of anything is how it’s actually going to be used,” said Marieb. “What shocked us about this was our assumptions were wrong.”

Intel isn’t the only technology manufacturer to encounter problems with pollution. Dell and IBM both have documented similar environmental problems. In Dell’s case, it reported that electronics in corrosive environments typically failed within two to four months.

While Intel won’t say just how many more computers fail due to air pollution, the company says pollution makes failure “multiple” times more likely.

Information from The Oregonian is included in this report.



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