Interview with Dr. Manuel Thesen

Reducing the carbon footprint of digital technologies with microelectronic research and development.

Dr. Manuel Thesen, project manager of the "Green ICT @ FMD" competence center, in an interview with Fraunhofer IUK-TECHNOLOGIE. Original publication in »InnoVisions«.

In order to reduce the consumption of resources in the Internet of Things, in artificial intelligence applications and in data centers, considerable progress is needed in microelectronics and power electronics, especially in the manufacturing processes of electronic components. The Competence Center for Resource-Conscious Information and Communication Technology aims to remedy this situation. In this interview, project manager Dr. Manuel Thesen talks about the »Green ICT @ FMD« project, emphasizes the potential and necessity of "green" microelectronics and tells us what the "Green ICT Award" is for.

Mr. Thesen, what is the »Green ICT @ FMD« competence center all about?  

The Green ICT @ FMDcompetence center was created as part of the German government's Green ICT mission. Here, the Fraunhofer and Leibniz Institutes cooperating in the Research Fab Microelectronics Germany (FMD) and the Fraunhofer ISI are jointly establishing a virtual competence center for research and development of resource-conscious information and communication technology (ICT). The aim is to help reduce the CO2 footprint of digital technologies.

What exactly does »Green ICT« mean and what are sustainable electronics? 

A large part of our digital world is determined by ICT - German for information and communications technology. ICT therefore stands for technologies that permeate our everyday and working lives, from smartphones and smart home applications to special sensor systems for the Internet of Things (IoT). Such technologies enrich and facilitate our lives and demand is growing rapidly - as are data and energy consumption. This means that ICT products have a major impact on the environment, both in terms of their use and their manufacture.  
 
At the same time, however, digital technologies are creating many possibilities and opportunities to save energy and thus protect the climate through intelligent control of devices, systems, processes and grids. It is therefore particularly important to always consider the entire life cycle of the hardware along all system levels. 
 
By coordinating the areas of Green ICT, Green by ICT, Green Energy Systems and Ecodesign, holistically thought-out overall systems with resource-saving and more sustainable electronics can be created. Sustainable electronics means using just as many natural resources as necessary and keeping the ecological footprint of our digital world as low as possible.

What does this mean for microelectronics?

Microelectronics is the key technology of the 21st century. Almost every modern electrical device today is equipped with microelectronic components. Semiconductors and chips are used in a wide variety of applications and have become an integral part of our everyday lives and our economy. Here is a comparison to give you a better idea of this dimension: If we were to spread out the wafers - those silicon slices a few 100 micrometers thin that are the basic material of all microelectronic components - on a surface next to each other, we could cover an area of 9.5 square kilometers with the wafers consumed in 2022 alone. This is roughly equivalent to the size of 1,300 soccer pitches. 
Only if we pay attention to each individual component and know its exact environmental impact can we make systems more resource-efficient and sustainable over their entire life cycle. In this way, microelectronics can make a significant contribution to reducing environmental pollution.

How is this approach being implemented in the »Green ICT @ FMD« project? 

In our project, for example, we are concentrating on evaluating and subsequently improving the resource consumption of sensor edge cloud systems, energy-saving communication infrastructures and resource-optimized electronics production processes. In addition to the central data processing infrastructures (cloud), modern networked ICT systems have increasing capacities for data collection and processing at the edge of the network. This opens up more opportunities for optimizing data processing and transmission processes between the cloud and the edge, thereby minimizing resource consumption when using ICT.  
We see further potential for savings in the development of high-performance networks such as 5G and 6G, but above all in the greenhouse gas emissions that occur during the production of microelectronic components. Minimizing overall energy consumption in the most resource-efficient way possible requires precise knowledge of the energy consumption of individual network components, and this is what we want to find out in the project.

Who benefits from sustainable electronics?  

Our offer within the framework of Green ICT @ FMD is strongly application-oriented and geared towards economic requirements. All the technological expertise of the cooperating Fraunhofer and Leibniz Institutes is pooled in so-called technology hubs to address the key issues of future ICT applications.  
The thematic priorities, sensor edge cloud systems, energy-efficient communication infrastructures and materials and manufacturing processes for resource-optimized electronics production, are particularly relevant for industrial partners in Germany and Europe. They can therefore actively participate in the technological orientation of the Green ICT hubs. In this way, we not only strengthen climate protection through sustainable electronics, but also European competitiveness. At the same time, companies benefit from the increasing popularity and market acceptance of "green" products. Especially as current energy prices demand energy efficiency in all areas. 

What does the future of the ICT industry look like in terms of sustainability and environmental protection? 

The ICT industry will play an important role in achieving sustainability and environmental protection goals. There is a growing awareness that the ICT sector has a significant impact on the environment and that it is necessary to minimize this impact in order to achieve climate targets. In the future, significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will therefore be essential if Germany and Europe are to be able to expand their technological progress at the current pace in a climate-friendly manner.

What role will the Green ICT @ FMD competence center play in this? 

Over the next 3.5 years, the »Green ICT @ FMD« competence center will gradually expand application-oriented research into resource conservation and a significant reduction in the CO2 footprint in the further development of ICT applications and infrastructures in Germany and Europe in line with demand. By coordinating and bundling the Green ICT-specific issues, cross-technology ICT solutions can be offered to partners in industry and science that take into account the ecological impact.  
Another future-oriented aspect addressed by the competence center is the promotion of young talent. This includes the »Green ICT Camp« program for young academics, which is currently being designed for 2024, as well as the »Green ICT Award«, which will be presented for the first time this year.  

In addition to the technology hubs already mentioned, there is also the »Green ICT Space« hub - what is it all about? 

With the Green ICT Space, we want to provide start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with low-threshold access to innovative microelectronic infrastructure and thus contribute to resource-conserving product development. In the hub, we support the product ideas of newly founded start-ups and SMEs from the outset and help them to develop and later implement functional prototypes or demonstrators in an environmentally friendly and resource-saving manner. 
Building on the established services, structures and technical expertise of the participating Fraunhofer and Leibniz institutes in the FMD, this can be implemented in a targeted and efficient manner. Over the next two years, we will launch a total of three calls for proposals, which will initiate a predefined application process. Interested start-ups and SMEs are therefore welcome to keep an eye on us. The first call for applications will start on May 31, 2023 on the Competence Center's website (www.greenict.de).

And last but not least: you mentioned the Green ICT Award earlier. What is this award for and who can apply for it?  

This is a study award that was introduced to inspire budding scientists for microelectronics and especially for Green ICT and to prepare the new generation for the technological challenges of tomorrow. Students and young professionals can submit their theses from relevant degree programs in the field of Green ICT and sustainability until June 30, 2023. The submitted entries will then be evaluated by an interdisciplinary jury team and the best three submissions will be selected. The three nominees will then have the opportunity to present their results during the MikroSystemTechnik Kongress 2023 in Dresden. In addition, the authors of the best theses will receive prize money of up to 2,500 euros and an exclusive place at the Green ICT Camp, which starts in 2024. Find out more at www.greenict.de/award