Scientists studying pollution damage to computers

2013-10-26T18:15:00Z Scientists studying pollution damage to computersThe Oregonian
October 26, 2013 6:15 pm  • 

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 say 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 it is 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 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 it bakes circuit boards in conditions that match the polluted conditions it finds overseas.

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.”

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