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Open Source Software, OLPC, and the Importance of Being Green
One of my favorite projects that uses free and open source software (FOSS) is the One Laptop Per Child project, or OLPC. In case you haven't heard of the OLPC project, it is an educational initiative to provide low-cost computers in the form of an extremely rugged and versatile laptop to all the children of the world. The OLPC is much more than just a cleverly-engineered laptop. Since I know more about computers than educational theories, this will be the focus of my blog today. One of the things I really like about the One Laptop Per Child XO laptop is the fact that it's very green. No, I don't mean the case, which does come in a bright shade of green and white.

I'm referring to the need for the OLPC XO laptop to be extremely efficient in its power consumption. The OLPC laptop is designed to be used in places where there is no reliable power grid, or, in many cases, no power grid at all. This has challenged the OLPC Project to be very creative in how power is generated, stored and conserved.

How Power is Generated

The XO laptop can be used with an AC power adapter. This is great when there is an available AC power source, like a utility power grid or a generator. Considering one of the main objectives of the OLPC project is to empower children in parts of the world with marginal technology, this is seldom likely to be the case. That's where clever alternate-source devices come into play. One is a yoyo-like pulley system, with a power output of about 10 minutes of laptop usage for every minute of pulling. Another device is an inexpensive foot-square solar panel. Other power sources being explored are wind power and other forms of human power. None of these are entirely unique to the OLPC project. What is unique is the potential users of the XO laptops are in the tens of millions. This can only have a positive impact on making these alternative sources of energy cheaper and more widely deployed.

How Power is Stored

The XO laptop comes with an advanced rechargeable battery. Instead of a Lithium-Ion battery, the type used in most laptops and mobile phones today, the XO laptop uses a lithium ferro-phosphate battery, which runs cooler, is cheaper and can be recharged many more times, than the typical laptop battery. This type of battery is also more stable chemically and is therefore safer. No videos of exploding XO laptops should ever appear on YouTube.

How Power is Consumed

The XO laptop also is miserly in its power consumption. It consumes around 2 watts of power, rather than the 65 watts my current laptop requires. It does this partly through having no electromechanical parts - in other words, no fan, hard drive.or CD drive. Flash memory is used for storage and expandable through 2 USB ports. The screen also doesn't need to draw power when used as a ebook reader, since the screen backlight switches off in bright sunlight while still displaying the current page. It only powers up momentarily to display a new page. The operating system for the XO laptop is based on Fedora Linux, so it can take advantage of the built-in power handling features of Linux and be easily modified to support its unique requirements.

Environmental Impact

The OLPC project has certainly worked hard to use environmentally friendly materials. The XO laptop and accessories supplied by OLPC will be fully compliant with the EU's RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) directive. It has also received EPEAT's Gold rating for environmental performance.

Since it requires so little power, the XO laptop also eases the demand for power generation in places where it is inherently difficult.

Because of the need for a very efficient low-powered platform, the XO laptop is, in my opinion, one of the greenest laptops on the planet. It uses power sparingly and is designed to have a minimal impact on the environment. At the same time, I hope this laptop will have a major impact on the education of children everywhere, especially in places where this kind of learning tool is rarely available.

Note: This is my modest contribution to the Blog Action Day - Post on October 15th relating to the environment. I am not officially connected to the OLPC project. I am a volunteer with the Fedora Project, which produces the Linux community distribution upon which the XO laptop software is based.

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