February 26, 2004 4:40 PM PST

Can nanotubes keep PCs cool?

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Intel is conducting research with nanotechnology provider Zyvex to see if carbon nanotubes can help dissipate the pent-up heat inside PCs.

The research revolves around incorporating carbon nanotubes into thermal grease, which makes up the thin layer of goo that sits between a microprocessor and a heat sink. Heat sinks are aluminum components that absorb heat through wings and tendrils.

Modern microprocessors generate inordinate amounts of heat, which can ultimately harm internal computer parts and interfere with signals. Although PC makers have managed to channel that heat away, the task is becoming more difficult as chips get faster and PCs get smaller.

Thermal grease "takes heat off the CPU and delivers it to the heat sink more efficiently," an Intel representative said Thursday.

Carbon nanotubes are a futuristic but logical choice for this task. The tubes conduct heat extremely well, are very small, and can be suspended in polymers or coatings. Experts have suggested that the first commercial uses of nanotubes will come in electrically or thermally conductive coatings.

The Intel representative said that the collaboration with Zyvex is a research project and that there is no guarantee that it will result in actual products.

Founded in 1997, Richardson, Texas-based Zyvex has come up with a variety of nanotube applications. For instance, it has come up with a way to suspend nanotubes in a solution, a technique at the heart of the Intel project. It has also developed tools for positioning nanotubes or for assembling them into larger components. These tools are used alongside microscopes and other equipment.

Zyvex has received research grants from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and other government agencies.

A number of companies are working on better ways to channel heat. This year should see the debut of PCs based on Intel's Prescott chip that will line up all the hot components in one channel of air. The design allows the hot parts to be cooled off with fewer fans, so manufacturers can reduce the overall size of the PC.

On another front, Cooligy expects its liquid cooling system to be used in a workstation set for release this year, according to Andy Keane, the vice president of marketing at the Silicon Valley company. In the Cooligy unit, a pump cycles a liquid (mostly water) through a series of microchannels that sit on top of a chip.

IBM has also put a liquid cooling system to work in some of its servers. But its system is passive, meaning the liquid isn't circulated by a pump; instead, cool liquids sink, then rise when heated up, to be replaced by falling cool liquids.

 

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