The Dork's guide to electronics thermal management

Okay, you caught me: I'm a Dork. I've been a Dork for a long time, and qualify for this title on many levels and subjects, yet today's foray into Dorkdom involves electronics thermal management and 19th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, considered to be one of history's most influential thinkers on pragmatism, epistemology, and logic...

...see, I TOLD you I was a Dork. Anyway, what I always loved about Peirce is his uncanny ability to cut to the chase on all matters, great and small. During his lifetime from 1839 to 1914, he wrote about stuff you can't ignore—a lot like all that heat that comes out of powerful electronics... the heat gives systems designers fits in their attempts to get rid of it.

Here's my favorite quote from Peirce, one that has stuck with me since I first read it in college during the late '70s, and which I thought about while researching this month's Product Intelligence report on electronics cooling and thermal management.

"A court may issue injunctions and judgments against me and I care not a snap of my finger for them. I may think them idle vapor," Peirce wrote. "But when I feel the sheriff's hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality. Actuality is something brute."

...and so it is with heat in electronics. You can't theorize it away, you can't wish it away, and sometimes you can't even design it away—not without spending a boatload of money on exotic approaches involving some sort of liquid cooling.

I'm sure there are electronics designers out there who would agree that thermal management in today's electronics is, indeed, something BRUTE. I know more than a few of them out there who are getting a BIG sense of actuality these days when it comes to electronics cooling.

I've been told that removing heat from electronics is one of the few real threats out there that could lead to the end of Moore's Law—you know, the one that says computing power doubles every 18 months or so? It's hard to get the heat out, and these powerful new computers generate heat, let me tell you.

I'm told the new Intel Core i7 microprocessors that so many are making a fuss over these days—including us—generates in the neighborhood of 45 watts of heat. That's a big problem for the designers trying to build small, lightweight technology for unmanned systems and wearable computers.

I'm also hearing that some influential military systems designers are getting so fed up with the headaches of cooling electronics that they're considering giving COTS up altogether. Yes, you heard that right. Commercial off-the-shelf computing technology often is good stuff, and it's affordable, yet it can be a pain to cool in deployable embedded applications.

Some designers out there evidently are ready to throw up their hands and just start building custom electronics that has the cooling built in from the start, rather than as an afterthought. At the end of the day, it just might not only be more reliable and rugged if they design systems that way, but it might be less expensive, too.

It won't be less expensive to build and buy, but if the military is honest and looks at design, procurement, and lifetime maintenance costs, they might be better off to specify some of the really hot electronics as custom systems, rather than COTS systems.

It's the small stuff that our fighting forces need most these days, and it's the small stuff that is so tough to keep cool. These issues are definitely NOT idle vapor, and today's thermal management engineers still have a lot of work to do.

For more on this subject, see this month's Product Intelligence feature entitled "Military electronics cooling and thermal management issues press for new materials development, potential move away from COTS" on page 34.

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February 2014
Volume 25, Issue 2
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