Cooling chips with fluid...from the inside

Liquids cool best when right next to a hot surface. Irish researchers are taking that to the next logical step.

Tech Culture

CORK, Ireland--Researchers for years have devised cooling systems that sit next to or on top of chips and other hot components. Now, researchers in Ireland are trying to make one for inside these components.

The University of Limerick in Ireland, in conjunction with Cork's Tyndall Institute and other research organizations in the country, is working on a liquid cooling system for inside chip packages. Chip packages are those blue/brown plastic sleeves that surround semiconductors and let them plug into a board. When you look at a chip, you're really looking at the package.

Twirly, whirly silicon impeller blades from Ireland. Michael Kanellos/CNET Networks

In this system, a chilling liquid would circulate in silicon channels and absorb heat as it passes over hot spots. A rotating component (pictured) would circulate the liquid so that it could absorb heat, release the heat away from the component, and re-enter the channels.

The larger rotary impeller you see here is 5 millimeters in diameter, while the smaller one is 2 millimeters. They are made of silicon. (An impeller, by the way, is a propeller for fluids.) The University of Limerick came up with the idea and the intellectual property. Tyndall, which is a national hardware research institute that works with other universities, fabricated the components. Brendan O'Neill, who runs Tyndall's fabrication center, showed it to me on a recent visit.

If they can pull it off, it could mark a distinct improvement in liquid cooling. The closer you can get to the source of the heat, the better a liquid can cool it off. Right now, companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard sell servers with liquid cooling, but the cooling systems wrap around components. Internal heat, of course, has been one of the big challenges for computer and chip designers.

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