Big chill for chips

HP, Intel and a handful of start-ups are among those working feverishly to keep ever-more-powerful server processors from becoming too hot to handle.

While the problem is not new, time has become of the essence in solving it, as chips just one-eighth-inch square soon will emit as much heat as a 100-watt light bulb, HP says.

Start-ups Cool ChipsCooligyThorrn Micro TechnologiesiCurie Lab and NanoCoolers are using nanotechnology to deal with the heat that results from cramming more components into smaller spaces.

High heat density from processors means high heat loads in servers. In turn, deploying a large number of servers in data centers leads to cooling challenges.

Cool Chips has designed a wafer-like device that sits on the precessor itself. A 10 nanometer gap in the cool chip causes electrons to tunnel across the gap using quantum mechanics.

The gap insulates so that heat doesn't return back through the gap, effectively dissipating it, the company says.".

"It's a little like having a party and you induce all the noisy people to go next door," says Chris Bourne, director of public relations for Cool Chips. "The party gets quieter in one room and the other room gets noisier."

Cool Chips says it hopes to ship products for servers and laptops in 2006.

Another start-up is taking a different approach: Engineers from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., formed Thorrn, which is developing technology called nano-lightning that creates wind currents that flow over the processor through microchannels. Thorrn says it expects to commercialize the technology for cooling laptop computers in 2006. The company's technology generates electrically charged atoms using electrodes. When electrons are discharged they interact with air and cause small gusts of wind that are then passed through microchannels to cool the chip.

"The idea is to make a very small direct air-cooled system," says Daniel Schlitz, president of Thorrn in West Lafayette. "We have replaced the fan with an ion-driven method of pushing air through a microchannel-based heat sink. We hope to be able to remove all the heat in the laptop with a very small package."

Schlitz says the company also is developing technology to cool blade servers.

Large chip manufacturers such as HP and IBM also are working on cooling their processors.

HP Labs is working on cooling chips with inkjet printing technology. The company has taken a printing cartridge and re-engineered it into an efficient, inexpensive cooling device for semiconductors. The spray-cooling mechanism shoots a small amount of dielectric liquid coolant onto specific areas of a chip. The liquid vaporizes on impact, cooling the chip, and the vapor is then passed through a heat exchanger and pumped back into a reservoir that feeds the spray device. While HP would not comment on when its servers will use this technology, Chandrakant Patel, distinguished technologist at HP, says that systems would not need the

technology for at least three years.

Hot on the trail

A variety of vendors are developing more efficient cooling for servers and laptop computers.
Company Product Approach Funding  
CooligyActive Micro-channel CoolingFluid-based coolingMayfield Fund, Mohr, Davidow Ventures and Granite Ventures$10.3 million
Cool ChipsCool ChipsElectron-based coolingPublicly traded  
iCurie LabUnknownMicro-electro-mechanical systemsHansen Grey$3 million
NanoCoolersUnknownFluid-based coolingDraper Fisher Jurvetson$8.5 million
Thorrn Micro ElectronicsCode-named ‘nano-lightning’Ion exchange-based coolingBurton D. Morgan Entrepreneurship Competition and 21st State of Indiana Fund$500,000

"Intel and [Advanced Micro Devices] are developing technology to change the growth curve of heat and power consumption," says Earl Joseph, research vice president of IDC's high-performance systems. "When you plot the curve, it looks like fourth-generation Itaniums will need a power plant to run one chip."

Server vendors typically have dissipated this heat with bulky fans and heat sinks. Mainframe and supercomputer manufacturers have long used fluid enclosed in special compartments to cool their processors.

"So far every vendor has stayed with air cooling - bigger and bigger fans moving air at higher and higher velocities," says Nathan Brookwood, principal for research firm Insight64. "We may very well be forced to go back to liquid cooling [like in mainframes] again just to deal with the extreme amounts of heat."

Analysts say Intel's new multi-core technology, which will ship in Itaniums next year, also will help alleviate heat problems.

"Intel does not plan to stay on the same heat/power consumption curve forever," Joseph says. "They are doing some fairly sophisticated control where the current and power are going across the chip - if there's a part of the cache that's not used for a few microseconds, they are shutting down that part of the chip, thus reducing heat dramatically."

"Blade servers are a very good fit for these cooling technologies," he says.

Intel is developing new materials to use in chip making designed to reduce current leakage, which causes heat, by hundreds of times. Called High-k, it will be implemented in future manufacturing processes. Later this year Intel is expected to disclose information about new materials and new types of transistors designed to increase performance and reduce heat significantly.

Still another start-up, Cooligy, is working on devices that sit on top of the processor and through a series of microchannels shunts water over the chip to reduce heat.

The company has developed an electro-kinetic pump that circulates fluid in a cooling system through a heat collector and to a radiator that is the size of two decks of playing cards. The radiator then transfers the heat to the outside air, where it can be picked up by the data center cooling system. Cooligy's Active Micro Channel Cooling (AMC) system can dissipate as much as 1,000 watts of heat per centimeter, according to the company. Current systems remove heat at 250 watts per centimeter.

The AMC technology was developed at Stanford University with the assistance of AMD, Intel and Apple, and licensed to Cooligy. The company is expected to launch its product next year.

NanoCoolers, a start-up, did not respond to Network World's calls. The company is developing thermoelectric coolers that use a liquid metal to cool server processors. Sources say NanoCoolers' product should be available next year.

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