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Steam age tech takes heat off chips

A California company is applying an idea from Victorian engineering to solving a key stumbling block in the development of high-performance chips--how to cool them down.

One of the key discoveries in steam engine technology was that multiple small pipes in the boiler extracted heat far more efficiently than a single pipe.

Now, Mountain View, Calif.-based Cooligy is applying a similar idea to cooling high-performance chips, and a quadrupling in heat-shifting performance is promised.

Cooligy is aiming its Active Micro-Channel Cooling system squarely at the next generation of high-speed processors. The company claims that the system, announced Tuesday, gives a maximum heat-removal capacity of 1,000 watts per square centimeter, compared with the existing limit of about 250 watts for passive systems.

Cooligy says the system is particularly good at cooling a chip's hot spots, which will get smaller, hotter and more common, as designs go to 90 nanometers and 65 nanometers. (The nanometer count refers to the average feature size of components on a chip. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.)

The cooling system has two innovative parts: a sheet of silicon with hundreds of microscopic channels etched into it; and an electrokinetic micropump.

The silicon fits over the top of a microprocessor or another chip, and the channels are filled with water. The electrokinetic micropump contains a porous bed through which water flows when a voltage is applied; ionic charges in the water push the liquid along. This is silent and can easily develop pressures high enough to overcome the natural viscosity of water in very narrow passages.

After the water is pumped above the chip--passing a millimeter away from the active layers--it circulates through a radiator and releases the heat to the outside.

Based on technology initially developed at Stanford University, the system has been developed in conjunction with companies such as Intel, Apple Computer and Advanced Micro Devices, according to Cooligy. Samples of the product are expected toward the end of the year, with prices ranging from about $25 to $30.

ZDNet UK's Rupert Goodwins reported from London.