UI research finds crystal with cooling properties for electronic devices


Portrait of David Cahill by Caitlin McCoy.

By Veronica Mierek , Contributing Writer

A team of researchers from the University, working with the University of Texas in Dallas, invented a crystal that can be utilized to cool off electronic devices.

Most devices generate heat as they operate, becoming hotter as the system demands more processes. Without hardware to mitigate some of the heat, the device can overheat, causing it to shut down or even be permanently damaged.

The most common material for computer chips and high-power electronics that we currently use is silicon, which does an adequate job of dissipating heat. However, according to the press release, it can only handle so much.

Boron arsenide, a material synthesized in the lab, has excellent thermal properties and is effective at alleviating much of the heat buildup, according to the press release. It does not occur in nature, and it needs to be manufactured in a specific structure for the best thermal conductivity.

The manufacturing of boron arsenide crystals is still in progress, and they haven’t even really scratched the surface, David Cahill, head of materials science and engineering, said.

“I would say that it’s too early to know…for it to be a practical material for technology,” Cahill said. “Our focus is really on the science and materials, to understand variability in the crystals, so what defects and impurities are causing the thermal conductivity to be sometimes high but sometimes low.”

Other options for the material, such as carbon and diamond, were considered, but ultimately rejected due to price and convenience. Boron arsenide is easier to produce, said Bing Lv, professor of physics at the University of Texas and co-author of the initial research paper.

“Boron arsenide, compared to diamonds, I can say it’s much cheaper,” Lv said.

According to the press release, diamond has the highest known thermal conductivity, but it is also incredibly expensive to procure and manufacture, especially for technology intended for consumers’ devices.

Despite the relative price difference, boron arsenide is still not easy to manufacture, and Cahill said the project was intended more for industrial devices instead of personal ones.

“The potential application is probably not in conventional kinds of electronics; in your cell phone or your laptop computer; but more in high-powered electronics that are used to, say, control electrical vehicles or power distribution,” Cahill said.

The research project is still in its early stages, having been unveiled for the first time on July 5. According to the press release, the next step is to try and improve the material’s properties, to make it more suitable on a larger scale. Cahill also said they want to focus on the materials and variability of the crystals.

“A scientific discovery will take a long time to become relevant,” Lv said. “Of course, we would be excited if the new thing will work.”

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