Plastic Cars and Recyclable Phones

E-mail Melanie Martella

Unless you've been spending some quality time under a rock, you will be aware that the idea of going green is emphatically "in." Frankly, I'm happy to see it, although I have to wonder whether some of the green innovations will truly be as paradigm-blastingly useful as advertised. Too often, the tradeoffs involved in any technology choice get shoved under a rug.

Shining a Light on Solar Energy
Take solar cells. If you live somewhere with plentiful sunlight, solar energy is a great idea. But because making solar cells uses many of the same materials and processing techniques used in semiconductor manufacture, creation and disposal of the cells isn't particularly environmentally friendly. Researchers are busily working both to improve the efficiency of photovoltaic devices and to discover new, cheaper, greener photovoltaic materials. One of these efforts involves the development of solar cells that use conducting polymers as the light-to-energy conversion material rather than silicon. While these cells use cheaper materials they don't yet have great efficiency and they degrade when exposed to UV light. However, Professor Yang Yang from UCLA and his fellow researchers have filed a patent for a coating for plastic solar cells that would convert incident UV light into visible light, which could then be converted to energy by the solar cell.

A Greener Phone?
Earlier this month, the Greener Gadgets Conference occurred in New York City. According to the conference's home page, this one-day event brings together designers, journalists, entrepreneurs, and business leaders to talk about greening the consumer electronics industry. (The sponsors make impressive reading: Nokia, BusinessWeek, HP, and CEA.) Nokia made headlines earlier with its Eco Sensor mobile phone concept which combines reclaimed materials, printed electronics, plant-based plastics. As designed, the phone would work with a separate wearable sensor unit to monitor your health and local environment.

My plea would be for mobile phones that either have a long life span—we wouldn't be so awash in defunct phones, computers, and other consumer electronics if they weren't built to be transitory amusements—or are made out of recycled and recyclable materials. The worst part of our current gadget habit (in terms of environmental impact) isn't in their use, it's in their production and disposal, which is why it's so heartening to see major manufacturers involved in these efforts.

Plastic Cars?
Please take a break and watch this talk, given by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute at the 2005 TED conference, in which he talks about his ideas for beating our oil addiction. I'll wait. Now, I'm interested in hearing from those of you in the automotive industry: How much of this makes sense? They sound like great ideas but how easy (or hard) and cheap (or expensive) is it to use composite materials for high-volume things such as cars? I get distrustful when people promise massive changes that don't require any effort on my part. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Reality Check
Ultimately, when it comes to saving energy and making planet-friendly choices, the greatest impact comes from manufacturers choosing to make their plants more energy efficient, choosing cleaner materials, and opting for cleaner processes. It involves smart grids for electric utilities, M2M and other condition-based monitoring systems to keep machinery running at full effectiveness, lower-power devices, and sensors throughout the production process to remove flawed parts as soon as they occur, leading to less waste.

What do you think? How many of you are dealing with green initiatives at your workplace? What do you see as the major barriers to some of these endeavors?