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The business end of a human nerve cell, a fundamental unit of our intelligence, is about one micron thick. That’s one-millionth of a meter, or one-hundredth of a human hair’s breadth.

The circuit of a computer microprocessor is even smaller. A recent Intel chip is so small that thirty thousand transistors—which switch the zeroes and ones that are the fundamental units of the digital world—can fit on the head of a pin. It can perform hundreds of millions of calculations in a second.

Thus far, the wonders in this book have been relatively simple devices. A kid can ride a bike, a condom fits in your wallet or purse, and a card will get you a library book. But at the risk of gumming up such elegant low-tech works, let’s get complicated and consider the microprocessor, or (to keep the language simple) the chip, which Intel calls “the most complex mass-produced product ever.”

A chip starts simply enough as plain silicon—sand, basically. Other metals and introduced impurities alter its conducting and insulating properties. More than 250 steps are involved in its construction, using heat, gas, chemicals, and ultraviolet light to produce a three-dimensional, multilayered package in which the space between some circuits can be just five atoms thick. Of all the inventions in history, it comes closest to rivaling the human nerve cell. And it has great potential to tackle the complicated challenge of fixing a warming atmosphere.

Like the human brain, the chip can take on a slew of complex tasks. Most are hidden in plain sight. Sure, you know there are chips working in your computer and your printer, as well as in your TV, car, camera, home phone, and cell phone. They’re also in the fridge, oven, and microwave. For that matter, they’re in your kids’ toys, your smoke detector, that obnoxious musical birthday card, a slew of medical equipment, and your watch—even an ostensibly “analog” watch with sweeping hands and an audible ticking sound. There may be one under your pet’s skin, to help identify her if she gets lost. “Intel Inside” indeed.

Like pine-tree air fresheners and butterfly tattoos, these things are everywhere. Each year, the semiconductor industry makes about 100million transistors for every man, woman, and child on Earth. By 2010, the number should be up to 1 billion.

It’s a revolutionary invention on a lot of fronts. So many technologies have transformed things in concrete, physical ways. The wheel gets you off your feet, the condom is a personal cofferdam, and the clothesline increases your shirt’s surface area and raises its temperature, assisting evaporation. But like books and broadcasting, chips work in the domain of information, moving it and processing it in whole new ways.

“They are machines that produce decisions,” says Jeffrey Zygmont in Microchip: An Idea, Its Genesis, and the Revolution It Created. On a computer, chips facilitate calculations as nuanced and complex as those required to track the warming of the atmosphere. They shepherd the Internet’s millions of computers, routers, and wires, helping scientists and policy makers and activists share data and findings around the world. And here’s where the chip really stands out as a wonder among wonders: it can make us smarter, boosting the power of the human brain and its own tiny transistors to make our world a better place.

Indeed, networked chips are being used in countless energy-saving ways that brilliantly address the overproduction of planet-warming carbon.

Just look at the simple acquisition of, say, a book. Before the Internet, you might have called a library to see if a book was in, but you more likely drove over and walked among the stacks. If the book wasn’t there, you might have tried another library. This could kill a few hours, burning fuel much of the time. Now you can search a library catalog online, arrange to have a book delivered to your local branch, and receive an e-mail when it is ready to pick up. Then you can economize on your time and gas by including the trip among a few other errands, or ride your bike over. And countless other acquisitions don’t involve driving at all: if you want to buy an album, you can purchase it from iTunes instead of at the mall.

It adds up to a perfect marriage of convenience and energy savings. Joseph Romm, executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions and a head of the Energy Department’s efficiency and renewable energy program during the Clinton administration, calculated that the energy costs per book sold are sixteen times greater for a conventional bookstore than for Amazon. Shipping ten pounds of packages by overnight air—the most energy-intensive delivery mode—still uses 40 percent less fuel than driving round-trip to the mall. (It’s a different story, of course, if you walk or bike to the bookstore.) Ground shipping by truck is even better, using one tenth the energy of driving yourself.

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development figures that a broader application of Internet retailing could eliminate the need for 12.5 percent of retail building space. This is the same as 1.5 billion square feet of commercial space, saving hundreds of millions of dollars in heating costs.


So, yes, a microchip-based economy uses energy, but it saves energy too. Our quality of life has increased dramatically “with very little increase in power,” says Sabey, who must have one of the largest utility bills in the country. “It’s a very small amount relative to the value gained. You can then fast forward to how the Internet is reducing the impact of global warming dramatically. It’s decreasing our overall use of power while at the same time allowing our economy to expand and our lifestyles to improve.”

Even more striking is how much of this energy savings has occurred as a happy by-product of businesses trying to economize and consumers hoping to save time and money via the electronic marketplace. We have barely begun to use these new tools consciously as a way to reduce our energy use. Growing numbers of us order our DVDs online, but many of us still drive to the video store. We buy books online and drive to the mall. We can avoid paper, but we unthinkingly use more of it.

The chip stands ready to lift our efficiency to new heights. A simple programmable thermostat lets you use home heating and air conditioning only when needed and automatically turn them off when you’re away. A study by Rick Heede, a greenhouse-gas analyst formerly with the Rocky Mountain Institute, found that this device offers truly impressive carbon reduction for the buck, saving the average household nearly sixty dollars and half a ton of carbon dioxide each. But programmable thermostats are installed in less than one-fourth of the nation’s 106 million households. Chip-regulated devices could be saving us energy not only in our heating system but also in our computers, and in the light fixtures and appliances that draw power even when switched off. Already the chip has made us smarter, not to mention richer. Now the challenge is to find ever more ways it can serve us in the great campaign against global warming—to make us and the planet cooler.

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March 7, 2006