Heat-conducting crystals keep chips cool

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas and their collaborators have created and characterized tiny crystals of boron arsenide, like the one shown here imaged with an electron microscope, that have high thermal conductivity. Because the semiconducting material efficiently transports heat, it might be used in future electronics to help keep smaller, more powerful devices from overheating. The research is described in a study published online July 5, 2018, in the journal Science. Credit: University of Texas at Dallas

If your laptop or cell phone starts to feel warm after playing hours of video games or running too many apps at one time, those devices are actually doing their job.

Whisking heat away from the circuitry in a computer’s innards to the outside environment is critical: Overheated computer chips can make programs run slower or freeze, shut the device down altogether or cause permanent damage.

As consumers demand smaller, faster and more powerful electronic devices that draw more current and generate more heat, the issue of heat management is reaching a bottleneck. With current technology, there’s a limit to the amount of heat that can be dissipated from the inside out.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas and their collaborators at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Houston have created a potential solution, described in a study published online July 5 in the journal Science.

Bing Lv (pronounced “love”), assistant professor of physics in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at UT Dallas, and his colleagues produced crystals of a semiconducting material called boron arsenide that have an extremely high thermal conductivity, a property that describes a material’s ability to transport heat.

“Heat management is very important for industries that rely on computer chips and transistors,” said Lv, a corresponding author of the study. “For high-powered, small electronics, we cannot use metal to dissipate heat because metal can cause a short circuit. We cannot apply cooling fans because those take up space. What we need is an inexpensive semiconductor that also disperses a lot of heat.”

Most of today’s computer chips are made of the element silicon, a crystalline semiconducting material that does an adequate job of dissipating heat. But silicon, in combination with other cooling technology incorporated into devices, can handle only so much.

Diamond has the highest known thermal conductivity, around 2,200 watts per meter-kelvin, compared to about 150 watts per meter-kelvin for silicon. Although diamond has been incorporated occasionally in demanding heat-dissipation applications, the cost of natural diamonds and structural defects in manmade diamond films make the material impractical for widespread use in electronics, Lv said.

Read more: Heat-conducting crystals could help computer chips keep their cool

thumbnail courtesy of phys.org