Carbon nanotubes for cool running

Carbon nanotubes may soon be integrated into ever-shrinking portable electronic gadgets to help ensure the equipment does not overheat, malfunction, or fail.

The chips inside an electronic device give off heat as a by-product of power consumption when the object is on or being used. To reduce high temperatures, heat sinks are attached to the back of the chips to draw thermal energy away from the microprocessor and transfer it into the surrounding air. Fans or fluids are sometimes used to improve the cooling process, but they increase the device weight, size, and bulk.

Using microfin structures made of aligned multi-walled carbon nanotube arrays mounted to the back of silicon chips, researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Oulu in Finland have proven that nanotubes can dissipate chip heat as effectively as copper — the best known, but most costly, material for thermal management applications. The nanotubes are also more flexible, resilient, and 10 times lighter than any other cooling material available.

‘As devices continue to decrease in dimension, there is a growing need for miniature on-chip thermal management applications,’ said Robert Vajtai, a researcher with the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Centre and corresponding author on the paper. ‘When reduced to sub-millimetre sizes, the integrity of materials typically used for cooling structures breaks down. Silicon becomes very brittle and easily shatters, while metallic structures become bendable and weak.’

Carbon nanotubes, however, maintain their combination of high strength, low weight, and excellent conductivity, and the carbon nanotube coolers can be manufactured very cost effectively, Vajtai said.

The researchers have developed a simple and scalable assembly,  using a processing and transfer technique to integrate the nanotube structures on the chip. Thick films consisting of 1.2 millimetre long multi-walled carbon nanotubes were grown and detached from silicon/silicon oxide templates, and a laser was used to carve out freestanding 10×10 fin array blocks. The bottoms of the nanotube cooler blocks were then soldered onto the backside of a thermometer test chip that was mounted on a silicon substrate.

This technique uses conventional manufacturing methods, providing an easy protocol to transfer and integrate nanotube arrays onto the silicon platforms currently used in electric circuits consisting of miniaturized components, according to the researchers.

Compared to a chip with no cooling source, 11 per cent more power was dissipated from the chip mounted with the nanotube cooler. Under forced nitrogen flow, the cooling performance with the fins was improved by 19 per cent.

The researchers are continuing to explore a variety of techniques to further optimise the nanotube’s cooling capabilities by improving the thermal interface between the chip and the nanotube, enlarging the cooler’s surface area, and perfecting the fin-array geometry.