DARPA wants electronics with radically novel liquid cooling technology

DARPA’s ICECool program looks to develop advanced heat dissipation chip technologies


With increased electronic minituriztion and the density of the chips running such devices heat is a mortal enemy for the power and scalability of such systems.

DARPA today announced a program called  Intrachip/Interchip Enhanced Cooling (ICECool) that it hopes will go the heart of such heat problems by building chips with a drastically different way of cooling that uses what the agency calls a microfluid channel inside the chip or component that will more effectively dissipate heat than current cooling technologies. 

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"Think of current electronics thermal management methods as the cooling system in your car," said Avram Bar-Cohen, DARPA program manager in a statement. "Water is pumped directly through the engine block and carries the absorbed heat through hoses back to the radiator to be cooled. By analogy, ICECool seeks technologies that would put the cooling fluid directly into the electronic 'engine'. In DARPA's case this embedded cooling comes in the form of microchannels designed and built directly into chips, substrates and/or packages as well as research into the thermal and fluid flow characteristics of such systems at both small and large scales."

At its core, ICECool will explore disruptive thermal technologies that will mitigate thermal limitations on the operation of military electronic systems, while significantly reducing size, weight, and power consumption, DARPA stated.   These thermal limitations will be alleviated by integrating thermal management techniques into the chip layout, substrate structure, and/or package design, which will significantly shrink the dimensions of the cooling system and provide superior cooling performance. Successful completion of this program will close the gap between chip-level heat generation density and system-level heat removal density in high-performance electronic systems, such as computers, wireless electronics and solid-state lasers.

DARPA says the need for such technology comes from the increased density of electronic components and subsystems, including the nascent commercialization of 3D chip stack technology, has pushed package-level volumetric heat generation "beyond 1 kW/cm3." Despite the application of aggressive thermal management techniques at the cabinet, module, and board levels, reliance on heat spreading to external heat rejection surfaces, through convoluted and multi-layered junction-to-ambient heat transfer paths, has led to a growing gap between the typical volumetric heat rejection capability of defense electronic systems and chip-level heat generation. The specific goal of ICECool Fundamentals is to demonstrate chip-level heat removal in excess of 1 kW/cm2 heat flux and 1 kW/cm3 heat density.

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The ICECool pogrom is follow-on to another DARPA initiative known as the Thermal Management Technologies initiative that look to develop all manner of advanced  heat management technologies.  For example, its Thermal Ground Plane program is looking to develop high-performance spreaders to replace the copper alloy heat spreaders in conventional systems. The Microtechnologies for Air Cooled Exchangers (MACE) program develops enhanced heatsinks with improvements that reduce the thermal resistance and also reduce the power requirements for the fan in air-cooled systems. And the Active Cooling Module (ACM) program develops miniature, active, high-efficiency refrigeration systems, based on thermoelectric or vapor-compression technologies.

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