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Cool electronic devices with more heat

Posted: 27 Jan 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:University at Buffalo  nanoelectrics  smartphone  tablet  nanotransistor 

Heat has been identified as a major cause as to why devices such as smartphones and tablets fail. As such, conventional wisdom suggests the solution is to keep the insides of these gadgets cool. A recent University at Buffalo research paper has surprisingly revealed that, in order to make laptops and other portable electronic devices more robust, more heat might be the answer.

"We've found that it's possible to protect nanoelectronic devices from the heat they generate in a way that preserves how these devices function," said Jonathan Bird, UB professor of electrical engineering at Buffalo. "This will hopefully allow us to continue developing more powerful smartphones, tablets and other devices without having a fundamental meltdown in their operation due to overheating."

Bird is the co-lead author along with Jong Han, UB associate professor of physics. Contributing authors are Jebum Lee and Jungwoo Song, who both recently earned PhDs in UB's department of electrical engineering; Shiran Xiao, PhD candidate in electrical engineering at UB; and John L. Reno, Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies at Sandia National Laboratories.

Cool electronic devices with more heat

Nanoconductors squeeze an electrical current into a narrow channel, increasing the amount of heat circulating through a microchip’s nanotransistor. Credit: Jon Bird and Jong Han

Heat in electronic devices is generated by the movement of electrons through transistors, resistors and other elements of an electrical network. Depending on the network, there are a variety of ways, such as cooling fans and heat sinks, to prevent the circuits from overheating.

But as more ICs and transistors are added to devices to boost their computing power, it's becoming more difficult to keep those elements cool. Most nanoelectrics research centers are working to develop advanced materials that are capable of withstanding the extreme environment inside smartphones, laptops and other devices.

While advanced materials show tremendous potential, the UB research suggests there may still be room within the existing paradigm of electronic devices to continue developing more powerful computers.

To support their findings, the researchers fabricated nanoscale semiconductor devices in a modern gallium arsenide crystal provided to UB by Sandia's Reno. The researchers then subjected the chip to a large voltage, squeezing an electrical current through the nanoconductors. This, in turn, increased the amount of heat circulating through the chip's nanotransistor.

But instead of degrading the device, the nanotransistor spontaneously transformed itself into a quantum state that was protected from the effect of heating and provided a robust channel of electric current. To help explain, Bird offered an analogy to Niagara Falls.

"The water, or energy, comes from a source; in this case, the Great Lakes. It's channeled into a narrow point (the Niagara River) and ultimately flows over Niagara Falls. At the bottom of waterfall is dissipated energy. But unlike the waterfall, this dissipated energy recirculates throughout the chip and changes how heat affects, or in this case doesn't affect, the network's operation."

While this behavior may seem unusual, especially conceptualizing it in terms of water flowing over a waterfall, it is the direct result of the quantum mechanical nature of electronics when viewed on the nanoscale. The current is made up of electrons which spontaneously organize to form a narrow conducting filament through the nanoconductor. It is this filament that is so robust against the effects of heating.

"We're not actually eliminating the heat, but we've managed to stop it from affecting the electrical network. In a way, this is an optimization of the current paradigm," said Han, who developed the theoretical models that explain the findings.





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