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Liquid Cooling Moves onto the Chip for Denser Electronics

Using microfluidic passages cut directly into the backsides of production field-programmable gate array (FPGA) devices, Georgia Institute of Technology researchers are putting liquid cooling right where it’s needed the most – a few hundred microns away from where the transistors are operating.

Combined with connection technology that operates through structures in the cooling passages, the new technologies could allow development of denser and more powerful integrated electronic systems that would no longer require heat sinks or cooling fans on top of the integrated circuits. Working with popular 28-nanometer FPGA devices made by Altera Corp., the researchers have demonstrated a monolithically-cooled chip that can operate at temperatures more than 60 percent below those of similar air-cooled chips.

Liquid Cooling Moves onto the Chip for Denser Electronics

In addition to more processing power, the lower temperatures can mean longer device life and less current leakage. The cooling comes from simple de-ionized water flowing through microfluidic passages that replace the massive air-cooled heat sinks normally placed on the backs of chips.

We believe we have eliminated one of the major barriers to building high-performance systems that are more compact and energy efficient,” said Muhannad Bakir, an associate professor and ON Semiconductor Junior Professor in the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We have eliminated the heat sink atop the silicon die by moving liquid cooling just a few hundred microns away from the transistors. We believe that reliably integrating microfluidic cooling directly on the silicon will be a disruptive technology for a new generation of electronics.”

Supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research is believed to be the first example of liquid cooling directly on an operating high-performance CMOS chip. Details of the research were presented on September 28 at the IEEE Custom Integrated Circuits Conference in San Jose, Calif.

Liquid cooling has been used to address the heat challenges facing computing systems whose power needs have been increasing. However, existing liquid cooling technology removes heat using cold plates externally attached to fully packaged silicon chips – adding thermal resistance and reducing the heat-rejection efficiency.

To make their liquid cooling system, Bakir and graduate student Thomas Sarvey removed the heat sink and heat-spreading materials from the backs of stock Altera FPGA chips. They then etched cooling passages into the silicon, incorporating silicon cylinders approximately 100 microns in diameter to improve heat transmission into the liquid. A silicon layer was then placed over the flow passages, and ports were attached for the connection of water tubes.

In multiple tests – including a demonstration for DARPA officials in Arlington, Virginia – a liquid-cooled FPGA was operated using a custom processor architecture provided by Altera. With a water inlet temperature of approximately 20 degrees Celsius and an inlet flow rate of 147 milliliters per minute, the liquid-cooled FPGA operated at a temperature of less than 24 degrees Celsius, compared to an air-cooled device that operated at 60 degrees Celsius.

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