Bouncing water droplets could be used to keep computer processors cool

Bouncing water droplets could be used to keep computer processors cool


Scientists from Duke University and Intel have come up with a new mechanism for keeping high-performance electronics cool: fill their insides with bouncing water droplets. It sounds like a late April Fool’s joke, but the researchers say such a system could keep high-performance electronics running at full speed by organically targeting hot-spots.

The proposed technology, described in the journal Applied Physics Letters, was inspired by the super-hydrophobic wings of cicadas, which naturally repel water. When two small water droplets collide on a cicada’s wing, they join together to form a bigger droplet. This change releases a small amount of energy that’s enough to lift the water off the wing’s surface, taking dust and dirt with it. This means the wings are self-cleaning, but the engineers figured the same principle could be also used to remove heat.

Of course, no-one wants to spill water on sensitive circuits, so the researchers created a sealed “vapor chamber” that can be installed within electronic systems. On one side of the chamber is a super-hydrophobic floor, and on the other, a sponge-like ceiling. As the chamber is heated by the surrounding electronics, the vapor condenses into tiny water droplets. These fall onto the super-hydrophobic floor, join together into bigger droplets, then ping off the surface, taking heat with them. The water is then soaked back up by the sponge-like ceiling and the whole process stars over.

An illustration of the vapor chamber, with its hydrophobic floor and sponge-like ceiling. Image by Chuan-Hua Chen, Duke University

The clever thing about this system is that it automatically targets hot-spots, as those areas are where the water vapor will condense first. And, unlike existing cooling mechanisms, this system also works on two planes at the same time — vertical and horizontal — meaning the cooling happens more efficiently.

“Flat-plate heat pipes are remarkable in their horizontal spreading, but lack a vertical mechanism to dissipate heat,” said Chuan-Hua Chen, associate professor at Duke and co-author of the study, in a press statement. “Our jumping-droplet technology addresses this technological void with a vertical heat spreading mechanism, opening a pathway to beat the best existing heat spreaders in all directions.”

Chen says these vapor chambers are “comparable” to commercial cooling systems, but that a lot more work is needed to be to create systems that will continue to operate over time. “But now, for the first time, I see a pathway to beating the industry models.”




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