Tech Briefs

The compliance and high longitudinal thermal conductivity of carbon nanotubes are exploited.

Microscopic thermal-contact pads that include carpetlike arrays of carbon nanotubes have been invented for dissipating heat generated in integrated circuits and similarly sized single electronic components. The need for these or other innovative thermal-contact pads arises because the requisite high thermal conductances cannot be realized by scaling conventional macroscopic thermal-contact pads down to microscopic sizes. Overcoming limitations of conventional thermal-contact materials and components, the carbon-nanotube thermal-contact pads offer the high thermal conductivities needed to accommodate the high local thermal power densities of modern electronic circuits, without need for large clamping pressures, extreme smoothness of surfaces in contact, or gap-filling materials (e.g., thermally conductive greases) to ensure adequate thermal contact. Moreover, unlike some conventional thermal-contact components, these pads are reusable.

Carbon Nanotubes Bend and Buckle to accommodate roughness of the surface of the component to be cooled. The high longitudinal thermal conductivity of carbon nanotubes is exploited to conduct heat into the heat sink.
The figure depicts a typical pad according to the invention, in contact with a rough surface on an electronic component that is to be cooled. Through reversible bending and buckling of carbon nanotubes at asperities on the rough surface, the pad yields sufficiently, under relatively low contact pressure, that thermal contact is distributed to many locations on the surface to be cooled, including valleys where contact would not ordinarily occur in conventional clamping of rigid surfaces. Hence, the effective thermal-contact area is greater than that achievable through scaling down of a macroscopic thermal-contact pad.

The extremely high longitudinal thermal conductivities of the carbon nanotubes are utilized to conduct heat away from potential hot spots on the surface to be cooled. The fibers protrude from a layer of a filler material (Cu, Ag, Au, or metal-particle- filled gels), which provides both mechanical support to maintain the carbon nanotubes in alignment and thermal conductivity to enhance the diffusion of concentrated heat from the nanotubes into the larger adjacent volume of a heat sink.

The array of carbon nanotubes, the filler material, and the heat sink are parts of a unitary composite structure that is fabricated as follows:

  1. Using techniques that have been reported previously, the array of substantially perpendicularly oriented carbon nanotubes is grown on a metal, silicon, or other suitable thermally conductive substrate that is intended to become the heat sink.
  2. By means of chemical vapor deposition, physical vapor deposition, plasma deposition, ion sputtering, electrochemical deposition, or casting from a liquid phase, some or all of the interstitial volume between carbon nanotubes is filled with the aforementioned layer of mechanically supporting, thermally conductive material.
  3. To cause the carbon nanotubes to protrude the desired length from the filler material, an outer layer of filler is removed by mechanical polishing, chemical mechanical polishing, wet chemical etching, electrochemical etching, or dry plasma etching.

This work was done by Jun Li of Ames Research Center and Brett A. Cruden and Alan M. Cassel of UARC.

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to the Technology Partnerships Division, Ames Research Center, (650) 604-2954. Refer to ARC-15173-1.

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).

Nanoengineered Thermal Materials Based on Carbon Nanotube Array Composites (reference ARC-15173-1) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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