General Electric Develops New Thermal Material that Could Replace Copper

General Electric Demos New Substrate for Cooling Down Hot Chips

by Anton Shilov
03/16/2011 | 06:50 PM

Since the dawn of the electronics age, copper has been a preferred material to cool electronics because of its favorable heat conducting properties: it absorbs heat very rapidly. But as electronic systems become more advanced, they are generating more and more heat and thus new materials will be needed to enable more advanced computers. General Electric (GE) believes that it has invented such a material.


Scientists in GE’s global research center have demonstrated an advanced thermal material system that could pave the way to faster computing and higher performing electronic systems. Leveraging technologies developed under GE’s nanotechnology advanced technology program, they have fabricated a prototype substrate that can cool electronic devices twice as well as copper while four times lighter than copper. In addition, the prototype successfully operated in a condition that was more than 10 times normal gravity.

The substrate utilizes phase-change-based heat transfer, but GE is rather tight-lipped about the technology. It is known that it is based on "unique surface engineered coatings" that both repel and attract water, in particular. It features nano hydrophilic evaporator, which "attracts" cool water and quickly turns it into vapor; nano hydrophilic wick, which absorbs cool water and lets vapor through to a hybrid hydrophobic/hydrophilic condenser, which turns vapor back into water and "sends" it through the wick back to the evaporator. While the process is pretty natural, special structures designed by GE let it flow far more quickly than in case of other materials. Production cost of the material is unclear.

“In demonstrations, GE’s prototype substrate has functioned effectively in a variety of electronics application environments. We also subjected it to harsh conditions during testing and found it could successfully operate in extremely high gravity applications," said Dr. Tao Deng, a senior scientist at GE global research and the project leader.

GE’s phase-change based prototype substrate can be applied to computer chips and a variety of different electronic components. It acts as a cooling mechanism that spreads or dissipates the heat generated in electronic systems to keep components cool. Unfortunately, if the material turns out to become too expensive, it will hardly ever reach the mass market.

The development of GE’s prototype substrate is part of a four year, $6 million program funded by the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA). In collaboration with various agencies from the U.S. government, GE Global Research has been developing several advanced thermal technologies. Besides the DARPA effort, Dr. Deng is also leading a team, supported by Air Force Research Laboratory, to develop advanced thermal solutions for high-speed flights.