Hewlett-Packard announced plans Wednesday to advance technologies to slash power use in data centers, while building software and an open online community to support manufacturers seeking more sustainable consumer products.
The efforts reveal the company's five-year strategy for the sustainability arm of its HP Labs, revamped in March.
HP would not disclose the budget for the efforts, but said in 2007 it invested $3.6 billion in research and development.
New research includes the Sustainable Data Center project, established to reduce the carbon footprint of building, operating, and dismantling data centers by 75 percent.
And HP's Photonic Interconnect project would work to replace copper wiring in servers with laser-based communication.
"We want to dematerialize the data center," said Chandrakant Patel, HP fellow and director of HP's Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab. "Imagine circuit boards in close proximity that communicate with light."
Optical laser connections within server equipment would be more flexible and 20 times more efficient than standard copper wires, he explained. And the range of the laser connections could span 100 nanometers to 100 meters.
"Because of our history of nanotechnology, we have the ability to build these kinds of things," Patel said, referring to work at HP in building lasers into chips. "We believe we can scale to data center scale, which is easily 100 to 200 racks."
Patel also hopes to lead the creation by 2009 of a Web-based "sustainability hub" that would would pool research and data from engineers, scientists, and other experts around the world.
He wants that to help create models of the carbon emissions and energy involved in creating myriad consumer products, building upon Lifetime Exergy Advisor software developed by HP Labs and the University of California at Berkeley.
Current tools to measure the carbon footprint of electronics and other consumer goods don't take every aspect of manufacturing and disposal into account, Patel said. For instance, extracting aluminum to make a laptop may involve as much energy as operating the machine for two years.
"How do we come up with an irrefutable metric that says what we are doing is sustainable?" Patel asked. "We look at the life cycle of a product, from the time material is extracted from the ground to the time it is reclaimed or recycled. How do we use appropriate materials so we don't create environmental headaches?"
Patel said he wants to convert each step of making a product, from mining to powering a factory to disposing of toxic materials, into joules, a measurement of energy.
HP Labs researchers are also analyzing how commercial printing and publishing could use digital printing and electronic paper to use fewer resources and less energy, with results they hope will extend to other industries.