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Dude, what if we just...didn't put a heatsink on it? - Conformal Coating could eliminate need for traditional air and water cooling systems

Summary

 

Researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois have developed a new method of cooling electronics in a way that is both more compact and efficient than traditional heat sinks or other mechanisms. The technology, called Copper Conformal Coating, involves coating heat generating components and the surrounding area with a thin, electrically insulating compound followed by a layer of copper, effectively turning the whole device into a giant radiator fin. This arrangement leads to a nearly 800% improvement in power per unit volume over a comparable copper heatsink.

 

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Quotes

Quote

There are three main issues with conventional heatsinks, explained Tarek Gebrael, the lead author of the paper and a UIUC Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering. First, the most advanced heatsinks using exotic and highly efficient conducting materials can be expensive and difficult to scale up. Gebrael mentioned heatspreaders containing diamonds as one rival tech, clearly illustrating his point.

Secondly, conventional designs combine a heatspreader and heatsink in tandem, and "in many cases, most of the heat is generated underneath the electronic device," lamented Gebrael. Thirdly, the best heat spreaders can't be installed directly onto electronics but require a thermal interface material, inhibiting optimal performance.

Quote

The approach first coats the devices with an electrical insulating layer of poly(2-chloro-p-xylylene) (parylene C) and then a conformal coating of copper," says the research paper. "This allows the copper to be in close proximity to the heat-generating elements, eliminating the need for thermal interface materials and providing improved cooling performance compared with existing technologies.

Quote

"In our study, we compared our coatings to standard heat sinking methods," Gebrael says. "What we showed is that you can get very similar thermal performance, or even better performance, with the coatings compared to the heat sinks." Nevertheless, a device using the new solution is dramatically smaller than one using heat sinks, which are bulky. "And this translates to much higher power per unit volume. We were able to demonstrate a 740% increase in the power per unit volume."

My thoughts

More compact, efficient electronics is certainly better, but it's definitely going to affect a device's repairability if the whole pcb is covered in metal. I'm also not sure how well this would scale up to the multi-hundred watt processors of current high-power computers.

 

Sources

https://www.tomshardware.com/news/copper-conformal-coating-heatsinks

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/05/220519115320.htm

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23 minutes ago, BachChain said:

The approach first coats the devices with an electrical insulating layer of poly(2-chloro-p-xylylene) (parylene C) and then a conformal coating of copper

Now, I don't know how this is synthesized, but I can tell you right now that academic papers are published with zero consideration as to how processes would work at scale or how much they would cost. Polymers are typically synthesized using precious metal catalyst reactions (think palladium, platinum, rhodium), though cheaper metal catalysts are in the works.

 

Precious metal catalysis is worth the upfront investment for large companies who sell massive quantities of cheap product (conversion of methanol to acetic acid by rhodium, for instance). However, for an emergent technology, the appeal is a lot smaller.

23 minutes ago, BachChain said:

but it's definitely going to affect a device's repairability if the whole pcb is covered in metal.

 

It wouldn't just be metal, the parylene C they mention is a polymeric material, likely a kind of thermally-robust plastic. But yes, they would have to coat it with copper, so point taken.

 

I'm gonna go digging around the article for the original paper and see what research they cite and their methods. This has me interested.

 

EDIT:

 

23 minutes ago, BachChain said:

Researchers at UC Berkeley

So, this is more of a gripe I have with elitism in academia in general, especially with how the media reports it, but the first author, and many co-authors of the paper are actually from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). It's not a particularly famous school outside particular academic circles but as a chemist, I can tell you that it has one of the top chemistry programs in the country and has an excellent mechanical engineering program. Berkeley is a more recognizable name, but the erasure of the collaboration partners from UIUC discounts the contributions they made towards this product. Again, both the first author on the paper (which by some conventions is the author that contributed most to the work of the paper) and the corresponding author (which is usually the main manager of the project, which would in this case be the professor that runs the lab with the various graduate students/postdoctoral fellows/research fellows running the show) are both from UIUC. I think just calling this a project by "researchers at UC Berkeley" is misleading at best and harmful at worst.

It's entirely possible that I misinterpreted/misread your topic and/or question. This happens more often than I care to admit. Apologies in advance.

 

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1 hour ago, BachChain said:

it's definitely going to affect a device's repairability if the whole pcb is covered in metal

 

 

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This seems like it would be promising for space-constrained applications, but I do wonder about the effectiveness of this compared to a large, actively cooled heatsink, like you get on a desktop CPU or GPU. The image shown compares this method to passive heatsinks, which are not generally used on the primary heat generating components in desktops.

 

In a sealed, passively cooled device like a phone, tablet, or some laptops, the ability to spread the heat evenly throughout the whole device seems like a good idea. Any interior part of the device that is operating at a cooler temperature than needed is wasting its potential to act as thermal mass, and thus hurting thermal performance for heat generating components. Your effective surface area for cooling, and total mass, is just the device itself - your goal for removing heat is to get that heat to the exterior of the device without making the device uncomfortably hot for people using it. A heatsink doesn't really help much in this case, beyond soaking heat during short workloads and then dissipating it over time. There's not airflow helping to cool down the heatsink directly.

 

However, in a desktop, your cooling limitations are usually constrained by the amount of air (or in some cases another fluid, if attached to an external radiator) you can put through the device. You are not really limited by the effectiveness of a heatsink itself. Not that spreading heat over an entire motherboard would be bad, but I don't know that it would be all that helpful. An OEM prebuilt with terrible thermals because they can't figure out how to move air through a box won't be saved by this tech. Especially if said OEM uses this as an excuse to get rid of the CPU cooler.

 

Basically, I'd like to see this method compared to a comparably-sized heatsink using heat-pipes where both systems are being actively cooled by fans. I have a feeling that a tower cooler will stack up much better in those conditions.

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17 minutes ago, YoungBlade said:

 

I think they are aiming for the aerospace/military industry and not really consumer products.

Small aluminum heat sinks don't weigh a lot so I imagine this would be useful where weight was important and money was not important. IIRC I have seen that some aerospace computers are completely coated to prevent any sort of moisture. This may be in the same vain as that where replacing entire boards is considered better than bothering to ever fix boards due to massive budget allowances and strict safety requirements.

Moisture_Protection.jpg

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The sources are both badly written but it seems like they want to insulate than surround the device being cooled on all sides with copper. So you get a lot more contact area to get heat out compared to a traditional heatsink arrangement. It still needs to get the heat away but note they claim the advantage in volume, not other measures. It is a niche technique that I don't think will be of any use to our CPUs and GPUs of interest.

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I was always wondering when something like this would shop up. Would be so awesome to see this one day.

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@BachChain Mind adding the DOI: 10.1038/s41928-022-00748-4 to the source?

Sadly this paper published in Elsevier (nature electronics).

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3 hours ago, James Evens said:

@BachChain Mind adding the DOI: 10.1038/s41928-022-00748-4 to the source?

Sadly this paper published in Elsevier (nature electronics).

Thankful I've never published in an Elsevier journal...

 

I did all the hard work but Elsevier got the profits - Schrute Facts  (Dwight Schrute from The Office) | Make a Meme

 

I'll excuse the misuse of the format.

It's entirely possible that I misinterpreted/misread your topic and/or question. This happens more often than I care to admit. Apologies in advance.

 

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