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by Mike Zazaian October 27, 2006 - 3:16pm, No Comments

Artist rendering of IBM's new chip-cap technology

IBM’s new ‘chip cap’ uses thermal channels inspired by tree roots to improve heat transfer between processors and heatsinks ten fold, leading the way to a whole new generation of faster, cooler processors.

Dubbed high thermal conductivity interface technology, IBM’s ‘chip cap’ uses a network of tree-like branched channels to improve surface contact between the processor and heatsink. The cap is designed such that the channels improve contact between heatsink and chip when pressure is applied, allowing manufacturers to increase the speed of processors without achieving dangerous levels of heat output. Said Bruno Michel, manager of the Advanced Thermal Packaging research group at IBM’s Zurich lab:

Electronic products are capable of amazing things, largely because of the more powerful chips at their heart. We want to help electronics makers keep the innovations coming. Our chip-cooling technology is just one tool at our disposal to help them do that.

Processors currently use thermal interface, viscous substances made of silicon or silver particles, to syphon damaging heat away from the processor and into the fins of the connecting heatsink. But even as thermal interface has improved, a great deal of care is required in applying the substances to the chips. Thermal interface transfers heat better when the heatsink is held tightly to the processor, but too much tightening could damage or crack processor cores, rendering them useless. And as the silver used in some thermal interface products is conductive, accidental smearing of the paste on processor contacts or motherboard components could damage or destroy hardware.

IBM’s chip cap solutions seems to put an end to all of these issues, while improving the ultimate goal of the contact, heat transfer, by as much as ten times. In addition the chip cap requires only half as much pressure between chip and heatsink as with thermal interface alone, thereby lessing the chance of core cracking and improving the overall life and performance of the processor.

Scientists have also focused on cooling because of the increasing amount of energy that it requires. Current cooling systems in computers use a series of fans to pull cooler air into the case with forced convection. Not only is this technique inefficient, but as processors generate more and more heat greater numbers of fans are used, increasing the overall energy consumption of the machine. Energy consumption from fans has increased so much, in fact, that in some systems more energy is consumed powering the fans than the processor itself.

Designs for the chip cap were inspired by similar forms in nature. Tree leaves, roots and even human veins are organized in the same hierarchical channels that IBM uses in the technology. The benefit of such a system is that they are evolutionarily optimized to serve large volumes of liquids, be they water or blood, while using very little energy to do so. Such hierarchical forms are crucial for the survival of all organisms, as will they be crucial for the development of technology as processors reach unprecedented levels of performance and heat production in coming years.

Press release from IBM
Via PhysOrg.com