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Keeping your cool

Nanotechnology, air jets and water droplets are all possible cooling technologies for the future. By Graham Pitcher.

Heat is the enemy of the electronics industry: if your components run too hot, then they don't perform as intended. So a lot of effort is expended by designers in an attempt to keep their systems running at optimum temperatures – or at least as close to the ideal as possible.

For big systems, fans are an obvious solution. But fans can create problems; they're noisy, liable to mechanical failure and don't always cool everything they're supposed to. Take a look inside your pc's enclosure and you'll see a fan for the box. But you'll also see a fan/heatsink combo dedicated solely to keeping the processor cool.

Racks of boards are another growing problem. Many applications now require boards to be packed into small spaces. For CompactPCI systems, board pitch may be only an inch. Yet the components on those boards may be generating hundreds of Watts. It's no surprise that such systems are beginning to be called toasters.

Other approaches to big system cooling have involved liquid. Mainframe computers, at the height of their popularity, often featured liquid cooling systems and heat exchangers outside of the building.

All of this is fine when you're dealing with large scale systems. When product size tracks downwards at a similar rate to the scaling of microelectronics devices, then you have to start looking at other solutions.

Heatsinks are one way of removing heat from a component, but these need space and, generally, forced air flow. Conductive tapes are another approach, taking heat from the component to a baseplate. But metal baseplates may not always be practicable.

So what ideas are being considered as possible ways to cool electronics components in the future?

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Graham Pitcher

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