DARPA earmarks $10M to keep heat out of electronics

Heat is one of the worst enemies of the semiconductors and electronics that drive advanced technology, such as high-power radars, and in the case of the military, electromagnetic weapons and aircraft circuitry.

That's why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) today gave Northrop Grumman's Electronic Systems an 18 month, $1.7 million contract to develop and demonstrate an ultra high capacity hybrid thermal ground plane needed to fight heat generated by semiconductors employed in electronic systems.  The Northrop contract follows a $1.5 million contract awarded  in May to the University of Colorado at Boulder and Lockheed Martin to work on similar technology.

However, both contracts together could be worth about $10 million if all phases of their development are completed, DARPA said.

And the need is there: A recent Navy report predicted that the shipboard cooling requirements would double in every 6 years for the next 20 years.

DARPA in its initial call for new heat removing technology said: thermal ground plane research should generate a thin, lightweight substrate for electronic systems and multi-chip modules that have thermal conductivity at least 100X higher than current copper alloy substrates. These thermal ground planes will enable a new generation of high-performance, integrated systems to operate at high power density without problems from temperature gradients, increased weight, or added complexity. TGP will be particularly important for enhancing existing systems that are highly constrained in size and weight.

The CU team said it plans to fabricate a thermal ground plane that is only 1 millimeter thick, which is comparable to a credit card but with an area as large as a laptop computer. The thermal ground plane can be used as a stand-alone component or integrated in a printed circuit board connecting chips and other components. A smaller thermal ground plane could be fabricated in the same way for use in a device such as a cell phone. Or, since the polymer material is flexible, it could be folded back and forth in a stack configuration, CU said.

Northrop said its team, which includes the University of Missouri, Georgia Institute of Technology; and Sandia National Laboratories will develop and test the feasibility of replacing solid metal plates known as heat spreaders with what it called "an advanced passively-driven, internally liquid cooled, silicon carbide-based thermal ground plane."

Getting and keeping the heat out of electronics is a key challenge as devices get smaller and the heat their processors generate expands. NASA researchers last year said they designed and built a new circuit chip that can take the heat of a blast furnace and keep on performing.  Silicon Carbide chips can operate in 600 degrees Celsius or 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit where conventional silicon-based electronics -- limited to about 350 C -- would fail. In the past, integrated circuit chips could not withstand more than a few hours of high temperatures before degrading or failing. This chip exceeded 1,700 hours of continuous operation at 500 degrees Celsius - a breakthrough that represents a 100-fold increase in what has previously been achieved, NASA said.

Researchers at Purdue University in June said they 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.

IBM said it is developing what it calls 3-D chip stacks that contain human hair-like pipes through which water can flow and cool the structure.   IBM's experimental chip stacks put chips and memory devices that usually sit side-by-side on a silicon wafer and stack them on top of one another. The idea is to shorten the distance information on a chip needs to travel by 1000 times, and allows for the addition of up to 100 times more channels for information to flow compared to 2-D chips, IBM said.

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