Researchers Use Ionic Wind Engines to Cool Computer Chips

Researchers Use Ionic Wind Engines to Cool Computer Chips

Purdue University researchers are working to use ionic wind engines to cool computer chips in a development that could have broad ramifications for one of the IT industry's biggest problems.

Vast amounts of electricity are used to cool computers. With funding from Intel Corp., Purdue researchers have found a way to use ionic wind engines to cool computer chips by as much as a whopping 250 percent. The findings will be published in the Sept. 1 issue of the Journal of Applied Physics.

"Other experimental cooling-enhancement approaches might give you a 40 percent or a 50 percent improvement," Suresh Garimella, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering, said in a statement. "A 250 percent improvement is quite unusual."

The team, who for the last year worked on the patent-pending device at Purdue's Birck Nanotechnology Center, used the ionic wind fans with a traditional fan to increase airflow to the surface of a test computer chip. This arrangement boosted the heat transfer coefficient, or cooling rate.

The cooling device generates ions using electrodes placed close together, with positively charged wires positioned about 10 millimeters above the negatively charged electrodes. Voltage passing through the device made the negatively charged electrodes discharge electrons toward the positively charged wires, causing a collision with air molecules.

The collision produced positively charged ions that were immediately attracted back toward the negatively charged electrodes, producing an ionic wind that increased airflow to the computer chip's surface.

The technology, in combination with a conventional fan, channeled air directly onto the chip’s hot surface, unlike conventional cooling technologies that are hindered by the "no-slip" effect. This means the air molecules near the surface remain stationary while the molecules farther away from the surface move faster, restricting airflow where it is needed most.

The development holds promise overcoming an age-old IT problem: creating smaller computers that can have enough power to run high-intensity programs for video games and other graphics-dependent programs.

"In computers and electronics, power equals heat, so we need to find ways to manage the heat generated in more powerful laptops and handheld computers," said Timothy Fisher, one of the research paper’s authors and an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue.

Garimella predicts the patent-pending technology could lead to thinner laptop computers that run at far cooler temperatures in as early as three years. This depends on how successfully researchers can shrink the technology and increase its durability. Garimella believes the technology could one day be integrated into portable consumer electronics, such as cell phones.

"It has the potential of enabling imaginative notebook and handheld PC designs in the future," said Intel Research Engineer Rajiv Mongia.