Refrigerator technology to cool computers

Researchers today said they are working on a way to use tiny refrigerator components to cool computers, a move  they say would increase system performance and shrink the size of the devices.

Researchers at Purdue University said they have developed miniature refrigerator technology such as compressors and evaporators to cool computer innards. Researchers said they have developed a model for designing tiny compressors that pump refrigerants using penny-size diaphragms made of ultra-thin sheets of a plastic called polyimide and coated with an electrically conducting metallic layer to help remove heat.

Miniature refrigeration would dramatically increase how much heat could be removed, said Suresh Garimella, the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue.

Conventional cooling systems typically use a fan to circulate air through finned devices called heat sinks attached to computer chips typically reducing heat to room temperature.  The ability to cool below ambient temperature could result in smaller, more powerful computers and also could improve reliability by reducing long-term damage to chips caused by heating, researchers said.

One complication is that the technology would require many diaphragms operating in parallel to pump a large enough volume of refrigerant for the cooling system, researcher noted.  Another challenge is to build very small compressors that run efficiently and reliably for a long period of time.

Researchers said they performed laboratory experiments with the diaphragms, developed a computational model for designing the compressor and validated the model with data from the lab. Findings showed that it is feasible to design a prototype system small enough to fit in a laptop, Garimella said. The model enables the engineers to optimize the design, determining how many diaphragms to use and how to stack them, either parallel to each other or in series.

Manufacturing the devices at low cost is another major challenge, with industry requiring a cost of about $30 each, researchers said.

Researchers are expected to detail their system further at the 12th International Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Conference and the 19th International Compressor Engineering Conference on July 14-17 at Purdue.

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