The surprising discovery of a new way to tune and enhance thermal conductivity gives engineers a new tool for managing thermal effects in smart phones and computers, lasers and a number of other powered devices.
The finding was made by a group of engineers headed by Deyu Li, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University.
Li and his collaborators discovered that the thermal conductivity of a pair of thin strips of material called boron nanoribbons can be enhanced by up to 45 percent depending on the process that they used to stick the two ribbons together. Although the research was conducted with boron nanoribbons, the results are generally applicable to other thin film materials.
One of the remarkable aspects of the effect Li discovered is that it is reversible. For example, when the researchers wetted the interface of a pair of nanoribbons with isopropyl alcohol, pressed them together and let them dry, the thermal conductivity was the same as that of a single nanoribbon. However, when they wetted them with pure alcohol and let them dry, the thermal conductivity was enhanced. Then, when they wetted them with isopropyl alcohol again, the thermal conductivity dropped back to the original low value.
One of the first areas where this new knowledge is likely to be applied is in thermal management of microelectronic devices like computer chips. Today, billions to trillions of transistors are jammed into chips the size of a fingernail. These chips generate so much heat that one of the major factors in their design is to prevent overheating. In fact, heat management is one of the major reasons behind today’s multi-core processor designs.