April 19, 2004 4:00 AM PDT

Nano-refrigeration company opens prototype plant

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Cool Chips, a company that wants to bring refrigeration into the nanotechnology era, has opened a prototype manufacturing facility, a crucial step in the long road to commercial deployment.

The Gibraltar-based company is promoting one of the more novel approaches to cooling industrial equipment and computer parts. Cool Chips takes two wafer-shaped electrodes and spaces them about 10 nanometers apart in a very thin sandwich.

When materials or gases are hot, the electrons from their constituent atoms are swirling from one location to another. A voltage applied to the wafer sandwich attracts the fast-moving electrons, which then tunnel through the first wafer. But, because of the 10-nanometer gap, the electrons can't return. Thus, the kinetic energy or heat gets sucked out of the area.

The company compares the process to getting rid of rowdy invitees at a party. When they leave, the energy in the room declines. The exiting electrons leave materials with a positive charge that is then rebalanced by the current flowing back into the system, according to the company.

Theoretically, a cooling system presents a number of advantages. It would use far less energy than traditional air compressors, fans or heat sinks, as well as take up less space, according to the company.

The secret sauce lies in the making of the electrodes and in spacing them. Although the electrodes look smooth to the naked eye, they are relatively bumpy on a microscopic level. The electrodes, however, can't touch, said spokesman Chris Bourne. As a result, the two wafers must be conformal, or exact topographical duplicates.

Conformality is achieved by calving the two electrodes from a single mother electrode. "You have to do it very carefully," he said. The company will more publicly discuss its technology this week, including providing more details on patents issued by the U.S. Patent Office on Tuesday.

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Of course, the concept is easier to describe than produce. The company has created the intellectual property and has produced some prototype sandwiches, but has not started commercial deployment or placed the sandwiches into a working chip.

"We have no major partners and we have no revenues or income," Bourne said. Rolls-Royce, however, has said it is interested in the technology and has signed an agreement outlining general licensing terms that would come into play if it decides to take a license. Cool Chips intends to make money through licensing fees and royalties.

The company has declined to provide the location of the prototype facility. It is in the former Soviet Union, but the company will not identify the city. "We don't want to be more precise for security reasons--both to protect our people there and to protect our (intellectual property)," Bourne said.

With the new facility, "we can produce in the order of several thousand such sandwiches a month," Bourne said. "The technical issues to be solved before commercial production can begin are almost exclusively to do with packaging, making the chip shock resistant and so on. We don't anticipate any major problems here."

The company's first target market will be aerospace and military contractors, the spokesman said. Getting into the wider industrial or consumer market will require finding ways to cut manufacturing costs, and demonstrating aesthetic or environmental advantages of the Cool Chips approach.

 

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