The Cost of Personal Computers in The Science Teaching Laboratory
August 11, 2008
For a long time, there was an assumption that personal computers were at the top of every undergraduate laboratory upgrade shopping list. Beginning in 1998, MeasureNet Networks offered an alternative to PC-based data acquisition giving students in-lab data views and graphs, while utilizing existing PCs in libraries, resource rooms, and dormitories for post-acquisition analysis. But after nearly a decade and numerous changes to PCs, what has happened to the claim that computers can be an unnecessary burden to data acquisition?
Though more powerful computers can be purchased less expensively than ten years ago, there are still a number of concerns ranging from economic to environmental. Longevity has remained a common worry. The United States Environmental Protection Agency asserts that the typical lifespan of a PC is “approaching two years, down from four.” (Beling, 2005) Other sources similarly claim the lifespan has decreased to just “24-36 months.” (Eason, 2006)
As seen in the accompanying graph, buying and replacing PCs for PC-based interfaces therefore requires a sizeable outlay of resources over an interface's lifespan. Provisioning a set of 12 computers for a typical laboratory of 24 students will range from U.S. $19,200 to nearly U.S. $40,000 over a ten year period depending on replacement frequency and computer choice. An equivalent MeasureNet Network would require a single instructor PC and a one-time estimated replacement over the same 10-year period, totaling U.S. $1,600 to U.S. $2,200 per laboratory
PC maintenance is another factor when considering lost lab productivity and the hourly cost of IT department employees. In U.S. colleges and universities, these costs are real but often hidden outside chemistry department budgets. A technology white paper in 2006 estimated help desk costs and productivity losses amounted to U.S. $348 per PC, not including hardware uncovered by warranties. (Atempo, 2006)
While improvements have been made in the operational energy efficiency of PCs and monitors in the past decade, PC power consumption in laboratories still reaches significant levels. For example, an Energy-Star optimized Dell Optiplex™ running an Intel Core™ 2 Duo with a 17-inch LCD monitor can cost almost $62.00 per year at a U.S. average of $.10 per KWh of electricity. A less efficient Optiplex™ with a Pentium ™ 4 D and a 17-inch CRT monitor can cost as much as $131 per year (1330 KWh) to operate in a lab. (4) Using PC-based interfaces instead of MeasureNet, this amounts to a $682 surcharge in electricity per year for the Energy Star PC-equipped lab and $1,441 annual when employing new, less efficient Optiplex computers. Projected over a ten-year period, with the very unlikely assumption that KWh charges remain constant, electricity costs total in range of $6,820 to $14,410 per non-MeasureNet lab assuming a configuration of 12 PCs for each 24-student laboratory. (Dell, 2008)
In addition to electricity consumption, there are other environmental costs of PC use. According to the U.S. EPA, the manufacturing process for each desktop PC generates 140 pounds (65.3 kg.) of waste. Current processes also consume k2,300 Kilowatt hours of energy, as well as 7,300 gallons (27,625 liters) of water per computer. (Beling, 2005) If you’re not using MeasureNet, manufacturing-related waste and electricity used provisioning PCs and their replacements for a lab add up:
PC Waste Produced over 10-Year Period; PC-based Interfaces Versus MeasureNet
based on new PC purchase and indicated replacement frequency over 10 years
||Replace PCs Once
||Replace PCs Twice
|solid waste (lbs)
MeasureNet users avoid many of the operational concerns associated with PCs. College of San Mateo instructor Michael Clay was relieved when realizing the reduced maintenance implications of his three MeasureNet-equipped laboratories in 2008. "As a number of department laptops recently needed battery replacement, I realized that if we had them in the labs attached to interfaces like Vernier™, battery replacement could have run to $2,000 or more per lab every two or three years. That's would have been a significant cost for us with multiple labs. You don't have to worry about any of that with MeasureNet."
Wear and tear from knocks and spills, as well as the lab environment take a toll on wet lab computers. University of the Sciences Philadelphia Chemistry Professor Madhumati Mahalingam undertook an extensive analysis of data acquisition systems and found interfaces with PCs were not the best solution. "We looked to upgrade to computers with the Vernier™ probes but due to the power requirement of installing that many computers in the lab, as well as the added hazard of a corrosive environment for the computers, it did not seem like an ideal choice. In fact, when the two options were presented to the IT department here, they recommended going with MeasureNet."
Thus despite capability and price improvements over the past decade, there are still significant economic and non-economic costs when putting computers into the the teaching laboratory. And with MeasureNet's recent integration of GC, HPLC, calorimeter, and electrochemistry capabilities, there are now opportunities beyond General Chemistry to improve the efficiency and sustainability of data acquisition infrastructures in department laboratories.
Beling, Christin. Project Engineer, "Electronics and the Environment," United States Environmental Protection Agency, November 14, 2005
Eason, Julie Anne, "Extend the life of your PC with TLC," Healthcare Traveler/Modern Medicine Network, April 1, 2006
"Reducing the Total Cost of Ownership of Corporate PC Fleets," Atempo, Inc., 2006
Dell Energy Calculator, 2008 (http://www.dell.com/html/us/products/optiplex/calculator/index.html)
MeasureNet Technology Ltd. manufactures patented, network-based data acquisition interfaces for science teaching laboratories. It is a spin-off of the University of Cincinnati's Department of Chemistry and is headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. MeasureNet's award-winning, PC-reducing design helps reduce laboratory maintenance and operational costs while giving students access to high quality shared UV-vis spectroscopy, gas chromatograph and HPLC connectivity, and an array of innovative probeware. Its acclaimed intuitive design provides improved transparency to enable better science-focused learning. Winner of the Ohio Governor's Award For Excellence in Energy Efficiency, MeasureNet networks are found in universities, community colleges, high schools, and vocational training centers across the United States and around the world. MeasureNet Technology Ltd. is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2008.
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