Pollution Makes Computers Sick, Too

Pic: Pluke (CC)

Pic: Pluke (CC)

Mike Rogoway writes at OregonLive:

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.

Read more here.