Heat sink revolution: Sandia Cooler smaller, quieter, 30X more efficient

We all know that the main enemy to computer components' lifespan and performance is heat. Keeping heat out of the parts that make the computer work -- in particular the processor -- and sending it away has always been a challenge.

It would be easy if you had the resources to sink your systems into stuff like liquid nitrogen, of course, but how many of us do? If you aren’t a Bond villain, the odds of that are pretty low.

But Sandia National Laboratories may have come up with an answer: a new type of air-cooled heat exchanger for processors and other chips that normal folks and government agencies can use.

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The typical approach to cooling a computer is to have a heat sink made up of metal foils in physical contact with the chip, and a circular fan positioned to draw the hot air away from the heat sink. Unfortunately, this can create pockets of dead air among the foils, which of course just keep getting hotter.

Researchers at Sandia have managed to combine the heat sink and fan into one with a rotating fin structure. Dubbed the Sandia Cooler, it looks like a set of curved heat sink foils that spiral out from the center in a clockwise pattern. When the array is spun counterclockwise, a mini vortex is created in the middle that draws air down into the structure and pushes it out along the curved channels between the foils.

This, of course, cools the foils and keeps any air from forming pockets. Sandia said the cooler is 10 times smaller that current CPU coolers and 30 times more efficient. And it's more energy-efficient and significantly quieter to boot. More details about the project can be found in Sandia's presentation or in the video below.

Sandia says the Cooler could be used in laptops or high-performance PCs, as well as air conditioners, cars and other electronic devices.

This development is, in a word, awesome. Anything that more efficiently cools our computer components is definitely a good thing. But, and with any radical new way of doing things there always is a but, the major hurdle that will need to be overcome could be infrastructure.

The heat sink/fan combinations we use now push the hot air away from the chips, so all case fans are set to blow air out. The Sandia Cooler works by drawing cool air in, so case fans as currently installed would be fighting the air flow. And any cooling system in the same computer that is using the current technology would be spitting out warm air that might be sucked in by the Sandia device.

So some thought should be put into airflow within a particular case before one of these babies is installed.

Oh, and apropos of nothing, “Sandia Cooler” sounds like something made with white wine. Maybe if we had a few of those, we wouldn’t be as concerned about our systems overheating.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.


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