The cooler

WSU-V pairs with Intel to keep the heat off microchips

"How do you keep an area the size of a thumbnail, with an extremely high heat density, operating at about 100º C?" That is the ultimate question Dr. Amir JoKar, a faculty member of Washington State University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science hopes to answer, working with Dr. Seri Lee, a thermal engineer at Intel.

One of WSU-V’s missions, said JoKar, is to support local industry through research. His current project with Intel Corp. illustrates the type of partnership possible between businesses and WSU-V researchers.

JoKar, Lee and a WSU-V graduate student are developing a reliable formula to measure and monitor CPU temperature. This is called metrology. Their goal is to develop a metrology that is cheap and simple, and that can be used by Intel’s customers at their own sites. By developing a customer-centric metrology, said Lee, any solution they generate based on that metrology will be "in synch with customer expectations." Their research is focused on a specific class of computer chips called the Flip Chip Ball Grid Array package.

Once the metrology is in place, JoKar and Lee and their research assistants will turn their attention to answering the question posed above. The heat density of a high-performance computer chip is about 500 watts/cm2, which is only one order of magnitude less than the heat density of the sun’s surface (5000 watts/cm2). Another way to visualize the type of heat they’re talking about, said Lee, is this: a high-performance computer chip, without any cooling, would be as hot as the heat you would feel one mile away from a one-megaton nuclear bomb explosion.

As computer chips get hot, they fail – costing businesses millions of dollars in lost data, replacement equipment and downtime. In addition to computers, many electronics devices now contain computer chips as well, making the cooling project applicable to a wide variety of industries – telecommunications, government, transportation, etc. For example, local company nLight, which develops and manufactures industry leading high-power semiconductor diode laser components and subsystems, is very interested in electronics cooling solutions.

Lee said that the thermal solution business was worth about $1 billion in 2003, and that it was probably closer to $1.5 billion by now. He stressed how important the current phase of the research project was, in that the metrology determines the eventual cost of the solution (and therefore, the cost of electronics devices themselves). If the metrology doesn’t keep the device cool enough, the device fails. If the metrology keeps the device cooler than necessary, it adds to the expense of the solution.

Electronics cooling, especially on the nanoscale required by high-speed computer chips, is an important issue, said JoKar. Because electronic cooling issues affect so many industries, WSU-V is developing curricula and facilities devoted specifically to electronics cooling.

"I know of only a few universities that offer electronics cooling as an official field of study," said JoKar.

WSU-V’s electronics cooling curriculum is being integrated at the undergraduate level. The University is developing labs, electronics cooling courses and funding proposals. They also plan to purchase an electronics cooling wind tunnel.

On the local horizon

The third annual Micro/Nano Breakthrough conference will be held July 24 to 26, 2006 at the Vancouver Conference Center and Hilton Hotel in Vancouver. This three-day regional event focuses on nanotechnology opportunities for Pacific Northwest companies and research institutions. Sessions cover a myriad of topics relating to micro and nanoscale technology development and commercialization, and discuss the role of these small-scale processes and devices across multiple industries. Topics will include, among others, micro-thermal systems and metrology and imaging tools.

WSU-V will host its Third Annual Research Showcase from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 20. The event is free and open to the public and it will take place in Student Services Building room 129.

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