How Self-Cooling Microchip Can Curb Overheating Of Phones And Laptops

A team of researchers from Switzerland developed a self-cooling chip to prevent overheating of electronic devices.

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When we use our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other electronics, the device often gets overheated. As frustrating as this is, it also has severe implications on the performance of the device. This problem happens due to the rapid flow of electric current, causing more frequent collisions of charges and ultimately overheating the chip. It not only triggers a high degree of unnecessary power dissipation but also impedes the processing speed of the microchip.

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From basic mobile phones to satellites, electronic devices require a large array of small electronic components like microchips. Moreover, as stated by Moore’s law, the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. Although this sounds great, the trend of miniaturizing these microchips has caused a lot of trouble in the manufacturing sector. Power and heat have become the biggest challenges for these manufacturers. In fact, the heat generated is such a massive problem that an immense amount of water is required to cool down these components. As the electronics industry continues to develop smaller and smaller devices, manufacturers are trying to cope with these thermal challenges.

So what is the solution to this huge problem? Well, scientists from Switzerland have designed a self-cooling chip that incorporates a cooling liquid. Previously, there was no direct integration of cooling channels to cool down the hotspots of the microchip. The scientists claim that the new approach will enhance the previously introduced cooling mechanisms and will subsequently transform computing into a new era of innovation. 

So what was wrong with the traditional cooling methods? Cooling requires a large amount of resources and has an adverse effect on the environment. In fact, two gallons of water is required to cool down one kilowatt-hour of calories. Such a wastage of resource pushed the researchers to develop a sustainable solution for cooling down chips.

The Swiss scientists proposed a chip design, also called “microfluidic–electronic co-design,” that integrates the coolant parts directly on itself. In this design, the coolant channels are embedded in such a way that they lie right below the active areas of the chip. The author of the study, Tiwei Wei, stated:

[The team has] made a breakthrough by developing a system in which [cooling channels] are integrated and co-fabricated with a chip in a single die. The buried channels are therefore embedded right below the active areas of the chip so that the coolant passes directly beneath the heat sources.

In order to design the chip, the team first etched narrow slits onto the chip’s substrate. These slits were then widened to stretch to the final widths of the cooling channels. The openings of these channels were then sealed off with copper. 

Although this is a great breakthrough in microchip technology, a lot more work has to be done to study the structural integrity over time. Another drawback is that the researchers have used an adhesive that cannot operate beyond 120 °C. What this means is that the system would fall apart at higher temperatures. Notably, the typical temperature that should be withstood by electronic components is 250 °C. This means that the scientists will have to work a way around this adhesive, and better fluidic connections will have to be developed. Similarly, water may not be a suitable coolant for real-world applications owing to the risk of freezing or contact with the chip. Perhaps, the use of different liquid coolants will be examined in the future. 

Nevertheless, this study has opened the doors to endless improvements that can be brought about in microchips. This is a very crucial step in order to magnify the performance of electronic devices, including the one you are using to read this article right now. A compact, low-cost, and energy-efficient cooling technique is the need of the hour for power electronics. As for the future, the team believes that this design can be leveraged to tackle some critical issues in electronic devices. Wei stated:

We anticipate that the co-design of microfluidic and electronics will be appropriate for energy-efficient thermally-aware electronics design. This may aid in solving critical challenges in electronics applications, as well as enabling future integrated power converters on a chip to support the electrification of our society in a sustainable manner.

A detailed report of the study has been published in the journal Nature


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