Researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) are developing a novel material for transferring heat away from ultra-high-power defense electronics. The exotic material, a composite of diamond and copper, is one of the materials under development as part of a new concept called a “Thermal Ground Plane” that aims to remove heat up to 100 times more effectively than present thermal-conducting schemes.
Georgia Tech is working with the Raytheon Co. on a project that seeks to raise thermal conductivity capabilities to 20,000 watts per meter Kelvin (a measure of thermal-conductivity efficiency). That’s a tall order, considering that the current conductivity champion, for radar applications, is a copper material with performance of approximately 200 to 300 watts per meter Kelvin.
The three-phase, four-year project is sponsored by the Microsystems Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
This improved cooling capability could benefit future high-power transmit-receive (T/R) module packages. Because of their higher power, those transmit-receive modules will also have higher cooling needs that may require a Thermal Ground Plane—a sort of heat-dissipating sandwich about one millimeter thick that would be part of the T/R module’s packaging.
“A Thermal Ground Plane is basically a materials system,” Nadler explained. “The most thermally conductive natural material, pure diamond, has a conductivity of about 2,000 watts per meter Kelvin. We’re aiming for 20,000, and to do that we have to look at the problem from a materials systems standpoint.”
The conductivity of that material would be improved with the addition of a liquid coolant able to carry heat away from the T/R module devices in the same way that sweat cools a body. A metal heat sink would help the liquid coolant dissipate the heat by condensing the vapor back to a fluid.
Using a liquid coolant takes advantage of phase changes—the conversion of matter between liquid and vapor states. The diamond-copper material would conduct heat to the liquid coolant and optimize cooling through wicking and evaporation. Then, the heat would be rejected as the vapor is re-condensed to a liquid on the side attached to the metal heat sink.
“The trick is to use evaporation, condensation and intrinsic thermal conductivity together, in series, in a continuous system,” Nadler said. “The whole device is a closed loop.”
In addition, the porous internal structure of the diamond-copper material must have exactly the right size and shape to maximize its own intrinsic heat conductivity. Yet its internal structure must also be designed in ways that can help draw the liquid coolant toward the heat source to facilitate evaporation.
Nadler explained that liquid coolant flow can be maximized by fine tuning such mechanisms as the capillarity of the diamond-copper material. Capillarity refers to a given structure’s ability to draw in a substance, especially a liquid, the way a sponge absorbs water or a medical technician pulls a drop of blood up into a narrow glass tube.