Tiny refrigerators help keep chips cool

Tiny refrigerators may soon be deposited directly onto computer chips to cool their overheated circuits. A team of researchers from several institutions has found a way to grow minuscule cooling devices on top of chips, placing them in the exact spots where they are most needed.

‘As computers get faster, they get hotter, to the point where fans don’t work to cool them any more,’ said Ali Shakouri, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and technical director of the team that has built the new coolers.

The temperature of a Pentium chip can soar to nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit when it is operating, Shakouri said. Densely packed transistors working at maximum capacity create ‘hot spots’ on chips that can get 30 to 50 degrees hotter than the rest of the chip.

‘The heat can reduce the lifetime, power, and speed of the chip,’ Shakouri said.

To make the new ‘micro-refrigerator’ cooling device, the researchers deposited 200 alternating layers of pure silicon and a silicon-germanium-carbon compound onto a silicon chip. They used a technique called molecular beam epitaxy, which aims a stream of molecules toward the surface of the chip, where they attach. The total thickness of the 200-layer deposit is just one-tenth that of a human hair. The molecular beam epitaxy technique is so precise, the thickness of the deposited material can be controlled to within one or two layers of atoms, Shakouri said.

When an electric current is run through wires attached to the micro-refrigerator on one side and the chip on the other, the deposited material only allows high-energy, or ‘hot,’ electrons to pass through it and complete the circuit. Low-energy, or ‘cold,’ electrons stay at the top surface of the deposit. This heat imbalance cools down the top surface of the chip.

These ‘thermoelectric’ coolers can be fabricated using the same techniques used to etch circuits onto chips. This will allow engineers to deposit the tiny devices onto potential hot spots during chip manufacture, Shakouri said. Since the coolers can be targeted to the circuits that need them, instead of to the whole chip, the cooling process should be much more energy-efficient than conventional methods.

The new micro-refrigerators cool computer chips by almost 13 degrees Fahrenheit. To be used in commercial applications, though, they will have to be able to cool chips by 30 to 50 degrees. This goal should be attainable, Shakouri said.

‘We hope to improve efficiency to the point where these will replace conventional cooling materials,’ he said.

If the coolers can be made more efficient, their use may not be limited to the Lilliputian world of computer chips, he added.

‘If we could improve efficiency by a factor of three or four, which in principle is possible, these devices could be used not just for chips but for refrigerators at home,’ Shakouri said. Such refrigerators, which would not need compressors, would be much quieter than refrigerators in use today.

The thermoelectric cooling machine even has a potential application when it is run in reverse, Shakouri said. Instead of using an electric current to create a temperature imbalance in a material, the device could use such an imbalance to generate electric current. The device could then be used, for example, to extract usable power from the heat that emerges from a car’s engine.

‘When you run a car, only one-third of the energy consumed is used to run the car, and the other two-thirds is wasted as heat,’ Shakouri said. ‘If we could make more efficient thermoelectric materials, we could put them around the engine and use some of that waste heat.’

On the web