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Purdue builds mini refrigeration chips to cool laptops

Researcher: Tiny cooling system could lead to smaller, more powerful computers

June 24, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Researchers at Purdue University have developed a tiny refrigeration system that could be cooling laptops and desktops within two years.

The cooling system, which is the size of a computer processor, should enable PC manufacturers to not only lower the temperature of existing machines, but also build much smaller computers, according to Suresh Garimella, the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue.

"Traditionally, you use a fan to blow air on a chip — room-temperature air," said Garimella. "If I could push chilled air onto the chip, then I get a lot more cooling."

Conventional cooling systems use a fan to circulate air through finned devices called heat sinks that are attached to computer chips. The miniature refrigeration devices are designed to dramatically increase how much heat can be removed from a computer, noted Garimella.

The new system, which has been in development for about for about three years so far, uses tiny compressors and tubing to pump refrigerants through it. "When we say miniaturization, we're talking about refrigeration tubes that fit on a chip," said Garimella. He added that the chip-size systems could be integrated into a CPU, or they could replace the traditional air-cooled heat sink in the computer.

"It's unlikely that your run-of-the-mill laptop will have a refrigeration system in a year or two," said Garimella. "You're more likely to see it in gaming systems, and then, in time, you'll find the system in other computers. I'd say in two years you'll see it in high-end laptops."

He added that better cooling for laptops and desktops could mean a reduction in energy usage. And by getting a better handle on heat output, manufacturers could build smaller and smaller computers.

Dan Olds, a principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said this could be an interesting breakthrough, especially in the laptop market.

"Keeping the heat down is crucially important in chips," he noted. "Faster chips at smaller scales — like 65 nanometer vs. 45 nanometer — generate a lot of heat. They actually can melt themselves down without appropriate cooling. So doing a better job of cooling chips — better than fans and heat sinks that also take up more space — will allow for smaller units and higher performance. It's a big deal, and something that manufacturers are dealing with from supercomputers on down."

The Purdue research lab is funded by several high-tech companies, including Apple, Honeywell, Intel, Sony and Sun Microsystems.

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