The growing popularity of microchips, currently found in applications ranging from cellular phones to cars, illustrates their increasing affordability. But a new report indicates that the environmental costs associated with producing the small silicon chips are much bigger than their size might suggest. According to a study recently published online by the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, the manufacturing of a typical two-gram chip takes 1.6 kilograms of fossil fuel, 72 grams of chemicals and 32 kilograms of water.

In order to assess the impact of semiconductor manufacturing, Eric D. Williams of the United Nations University and his colleagues studied data collected by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, the Environmental Protection Agency and an anonymous electronics firm. The team found that the materials involved in making a 32-MB RAM microchip total 630 times the mass of the final product. Because of the purification needed for semiconductor technology, manufacturing microchips requires approximately 160 times the amount of energy needed to make typical silicon. Of particular note are the thousands of potentially toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Because microchips--and the smaller, more energy efficient appliciances they power--are no doubt here to stay, the authors emphasize the need to "work toward a wider understanding of and response to the industry's environmental issues."