July 07, 2011

Sandia’s “Cooler” technology offers fundamental breakthrough in heat transfer for microelectronics, other cooling applications

In this diagram of the Sandia Cooler, heat is transferred to the rotating cooling fins. Rotation of the cooling fins eliminates the thermal bottleneck typically associated with a conventional CPU cooler. (Diagram courtesy of Jeff Koplow)

Sandia National Laboratories has developed a new technology with the potential to dramatically alter the air-cooling landscape in computing and microelectronics, and lab officials are now seeking licensees in the electronics chip cooling field to license and commercialize the device.

A Fundamentally New Approach to Air-cooled Heat Exchangers (48 pages)

In a conventional CPU cooler, the heat transfer bottleneck is the boundary layer of “dead air” that clings to the cooling fins. With the Sandia Cooler, heat is efficiently transferred across a narrow air gap from a stationary base to a rotating structure. The normally stagnant boundary layer of air enveloping the cooling fins is subjected to a powerful centrifugal pumping effect, causing the boundary layer thickness to be reduced to ten times thinner than normal. This reduction enables a dramatic improvement in cooling performance within a much smaller package.

The performance obtained with a highly unoptimized version 1 prototype device already represents a major advance in a technology area of fundamental importance that has changed little in the past 40 years. The potential implications in the U.S. energy sector (air conditioners, heat pumps, and refrigeration equipment) amount to a ~5% reduction (future optimized devices could get almost 30% improvement) in electrical power consumption, significantly increased grid operating margin, and significant reduction in heat-wave generated load spikes. The potential implications in the information technology sector (desktop computers, high-performance graphics cards, server farms, and data centers) are also very large and center on resolving the thermal brick wall problem, which has prevented CPUs from advancing beyond clock speeds of ~3 GHz, and emerging concerns about the energy consumption of data centers, half of which is associated with cooling. The most immediate priority for future work is construction of the version 2 prototype, which is predicted to reduce thermal resistance to ~0.1 C/W.

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