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Fanless heat sink design promises cooler, quieter CPUs

New fanless heat sink design out of Sandia National Laboratories said to offer more efficient CPU cooling.

As a product category, CPU cooling hardware tends to offer few worthwhile developments, but a new heat sink concept from Sandia National Laboratories seems to offer tremendous promise for computers, as well as cooling appliances. Designed by researcher Jeffrey Koplow, the new "Sandia Cooler" does away with a separate fan component, and instead relies on the heat sink itself to disperse heated air.

Thermal diagram of the Sandia Cooler's heat dispersion methodology.
Thermal diagram of the Sandia Cooler's heat dispersion methodology. Sandia National Laboratories

If you're familiar with traditional CPU heat sink designs, they usually feature a metal heat sink and a fan working in concert to siphon off the heat generated by CPU, graphics chips, and other computer parts that draw, and therefore emit, energy. The problem with that design is what's called the boundary layer of air that hugs the heat sink. That boundary layer retains heat, which the fan is then supposed to disperse. Because of the power necessary to drive the fan, as well as the fan's proximity to the boundary layer, that design is inefficient. The Sandia Cooler eliminates the fan, replacing it with a finned heat sink that can disperse the boundary layer far more efficiently since the two are in closer contact.

The Sandia cooler eliminates the traditional CPU fan in favor of a rotating heat sink.
The Sandia cooler eliminates the traditional CPU fan in favor of a rotating heat sink. Sandia National Laboratories

The benefits of such a design are numerous, and could have far-ranging implications for computers and appliances like air conditioners and refrigerators. In part because it doesn't attract dust to itself like a typical fan/heat sink combination, the Sandia cooler uses less power, generates less noise, and ultimately disperses heat more efficiently.

According to the paper supporting Koplow's findings (PDF), the Sandia cooler could finally offer the cooling efficiency necessary to allow for processor clock speeds above the current rough 3.0GHz limit. That means faster computing performance and better power efficiency for both desktops and laptops, as well as the potential for laptops to both close the performance gap with desktops, and run cooler.

Equally exciting are the implications of the Sandia cooler for power hungry cooling appliances. Those devices, which also rely on a fan blowing air over a heat exchanger, suffer from the same issues as CPU fan and heat sink designs. They intake dust, which impedes power efficiency of an already inefficient design, and they're also noisy. According to a press release issued from Sandia last week, "Koplow said that if Air Bearing Heat Exchanger technology proves amenable to size scaling, it has the potential to decrease overall electrical power consumption in the U.S. by more than seven percent."

Sandia is currently soliciting requests to license the Sandia Cooler design for CPU cooler manufacturing, and it plans to facilitate requests for other implementations soon.