March 20, 2007 11:08 AM PDT

Using steam to cool computers

You can hold Celsia's new cooling component for about three seconds. Then your fingers start to feel as if they're getting burned.

It's part of a new line of components from the San Jose, Calif.-based company that it says will cool off torrid hotspots inside computers and light fixtures running light emitting diodes (LEDs) better than conventional heat pipes or fans.

Feeling is believing. In the corporate demonstration, a person stirs a cup of hot water with a stick of copper. It takes about five seconds or so to feel a gradual warming sensation. The human guinea pig then stirs with one of the company's heat spreaders: the rapid rise in temperature is noticeable before two seconds elapse. Holding the NanoSpreader for five seconds is nearly impossible.


The sudden rush of heat occurs because steam is being created inside the NanoSpreader, said George Meyer, director of development at the company, which was re-launched in 2006. The exterior of the device is a copper sleeve that absorbs heat from a processor or a hard drive.

The interior consists of a series of vacuum-sealed chambers and channels containing small amounts of water. The water turns to steam, which then conducts the heat from the source to another component, such as an aluminum heat sink, that can dissipate the heat into the ambient atmosphere.

"Steam conducts heat better than almost any substance out there," he said.

Testers often don't believe that. "There's got to be some sort of chemical in there," one observer said, though Meyer affirmed that the active ingredients are copper and water.

Heat is one of the primary obstacles for industrial designers and consumer electronics manufacturers these days. Consumers want small, quiet devices. Unfortunately, components like processors and hard drives generate a lot of heat and often require fans or heat pipes, tubes of metal that conduct heat away, to keep them cool.

"The digital video recorder is one of the most strenuous applications for a hard drive there is," said Meyer. Blade server manufacturers and makers of telecommunications equipment are also shopping for new components to remove heat.

The company is also targeting LED lights. Although LEDs can produce a significant amount of light per watt of power, LEDs also generate a significant amount of heat. Thus, LED arrays often need cooling components.

IBM and other companies have created water or oil-filled components for cooling internal computer components for years. But many of these devices contained relatively large amounts of water and are therefore physically large.

Shrinking the size of these components so they won't add bulk in smaller computers has been a bit of a challenge. Cooligy has developed a liquid cooling system, but it requires a mechanical pump. Other companies working on products in this market include Nanocoolers and Cool Chips. None of these companies has experienced broad adoption yet.

For its part, Celsia asserts that it has an advantage in that its components are fairly small, measuring only a few millimeters thick, and are made out of fairly basic materials. It has also teamed up with Taiwan's Yeh-Chiang Technology, one of the largest manufacturers of heat pipes.

Getting this far hasn't been easy. The company emerged from South Korea as iCurie in 2001. In 2005, a new management team was installed and an additional $20 million in funding was raised from various sources.

Celsia's components cost more than ordinary heat pipes or cooling technologies, but fewer cooling components are needed. In the end, the company says using its components versus ordinary ones should be cost-neutral.

The smaller number of components also frees up designers.

"If you are looking at an ultralight portable, you could build it without a fan," he said.

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you bet there's a chemical in there
Water is too a chemical.

Dual-phase heat transport is totally efficient;
by lowering the pressure in the tube, the boiling
point is reduced as far down as you want to go.

Without a vacuum, a liquid that has a lower boiling point -- such as alchohol -- could be used.

Liquid-cooled CPU heat sinks made by drilling
holes through the standard heat sink, inserting
copper tubes, and running lines to an external
cooling tower -- a coffee can filled with more
water -- have been a standard project in the
overclocking community for years.
Posted by minitrue (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Behold, Intelligence among the CNET posters
I was wondering how they were going to lower the boiling point so low but thanks to you my question was answered!

I was figuring a chemical of some sort must have been used (like salt or something) but vacume is what i forgot.
Posted by timber2005 (720 comments )
Link Flag
Another non-story
There is very little different between Celsia's heat pipe embedded copper systems and the tens to hundreds of other companies doing the same thing. Heat pipes have been in laptops for years, and are now being used by many companies in desktops, graphics cards, etc... Where is the story here?

Why the mention of Cooligy? Their fancy new pump was a bust, and the company was sold at break even or a loss by the investors. Nanocoolers has been nothing but slideware, except for a couple of liquid metal systems that performed poorly and did not go anywhere. The lights may be out soon there, from what it looks like.

There are companies making an impact with new cooling technologies that fit the needs of industry, but Cnet doesn't seem to be able to find them.
Posted by aminer2k (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
There is a great difference
between standard heat pipes and this new technology. Standard heat pipes are just air cooled copper conductors. Water's heat of vaporization is very large and an excellent way of very rapidly cooling components. It should provide much more rapid cooling to components which heat up quickly (like CPU's or GPU's). Of course, like standard heat pipes the other end will need to be in a place where it can be cooled, or the unit will lose effeciency.
Posted by PzkwVIb (462 comments )
Link Flag
continuous cooling? pressure?
the thing is, will it continue to draw heat away after the initial
boiling of water? What about pressure?

Anyone that cooks knows that steam heats food very rapidly but
that it also does so with a reservoir of water that depletes. And
likewise when one is using a pressure cooker, the pressure gets
intense and there are safety valves to prevent explosion.

What are the options inside a laptop or a video camera? Spewing
scorching hot steam either inside your device or potentially at
your body? In either case that would ruin you, the device, or
both. And if there's no valve, exploding electronics? As if
flammable batteries weren't enough?

I think they need to answer these questions..
Posted by Hobyx (24 comments )
Reply Link Flag
? Wrong assumptions
Well, ,I think you are misunderstanding the technology involved. The steam is just used as a conductor of the heat from the source such as the CPU to the heatsink. It works the same way as normal copper heat tubing does, but much more effiecently. The water/steam is never exposed to outside atmosphere. In fact, in cannot be because once you do the part is ruined (no longer in vaccum). The amounts of water are minute and will not generate excessive pressures under use. You are way off base on your fears and concerns in regards to this tech. They didn't answers your questions because they are irrelevant to this application.
Posted by Vinhasa (56 comments )
Link Flag
Uhm, No thanks?
From the description, it sounds no different than heat pipes. Regardless, copper corrodes when exposed to water, so efficiency goes down, and eventually the water may corrode through the copper and leak out--shorting the nearest component (in computers the CPU). Admittedly it would be a tiny amount of water, but it only takes a little impure water, and a lack of cooling to kill a CPU.

I'll pass.
Posted by hawkeyeaz1 (569 comments )
Reply Link Flag
In the absence of air (the water will be in a vacuum) and with no impurites or chemical salts in the water there would be no corrosion.
Posted by PzkwVIb (462 comments )
Link Flag
Like he said, but...
Water corrodes copper pipes in your house because it is fresh water all the time, with no copper in it. In contrast, if the water is always the same water, then the copper ion level reaches saturation very quickly and there is no further corrosion.
Posted by dmm (336 comments )
Link Flag
It's not very ecological is it.
Instead of solving the problem of creating too much heat/wasted energy we now have a way to waste more of it without the hardware burning out. Well done! Another nail in the ecology coffin.
Posted by jsargent (98 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You're not that educated, are you?
Have you even been following the advances in CPU's over the last 2/3 years, specially Intel with its Core Duo line?
Posted by Fil0403 (1303 comments )
Link Flag
There are times...
when we need all the power we can get. A super-green PC will still need to number-crunch occasionally, and this will inherently create waste heat. It is as unavoidable as death and taxes.
Posted by dmm (336 comments )
Link Flag
Not "conducts" but "transports"
The statement, "Steam conducts heat better than almost any substance out there" is not correct. In fact steam is actually an insulator. But it does transport heat energy quite nicely.

Having spent 6 years in the Navy Nuclear Power field, I learned quite a bit about Heat Transfer and Fluid Flow.

The density of the water decreases as it changes phases from a liquid to a gas. The decrease in density decreases its ability to ?conduct? heat, thus making it an insulator. It is the liquid water that is conducting the heat from the copper tubing, not the steam.

The amount of heat energy required to cause the water to change phases from a liquid to a gas is called the latent heat of vaporization. <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>

The steam then expands to fill the void caused by the vacuum in the tube. This is the mechanism that transports the heat to the other end of the tube ? toward the heat sink.

As the water ?boils? and steam is created, the vacuum in the tube decreases (pressure increases) and increases the temperature required to cause the phase change from liquid to gas. However, as the steam condenses in the cooler end of the tube, it causes the vacuum to increase (pressure decreases) lowering the temperature required to ?boil? the water. It will eventually reach an equilibrium determined by how much energy is removed by the heat sink on the cooler end of the tube. The condensed water then flows back to the heat source end of the tube and the cycle repeats itself.
Posted by HowardParr (18 comments )
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