Purdue University researchers, in a project funded by Intel, have demonstrated a new technology using tiny "ionic wind engines" that could dramatically improve computer chip cooling. The new technology could help engineers design thinner laptop computers that run cooler than today's machines.

The researchers showed that the technology increased the heat-transfer coefficient, which describes the cooling rate, by as much as 250 percent. When used in combination with a fan, the device enhanced the fan's effectiveness by increasing airflow to the surface of a mock computer chip. The new cooling technology could be introduced in computers within three years if researchers are able to miniaturize it and make the system rugged enough.

The device works by generating ions using electrodes placed near one another. The device contained a positively charged wire, or anode, and negatively charged electrodes, or cathodes. The anode was positioned about 10 millimeters above the cathodes. When voltage was passed through the device, the negatively charged electrodes discharged electrons toward the positively charged anode. Along the way, the electrons collided with air molecules, producing positively charged ions, which were then attracted back toward the negatively charged electrodes, creating an ionic wind. This breeze increased the airflow on the surface of the chip.

The next step is to reduce the size of the components within the device from the scale of millimeters to microns. Miniaturizing the technology will be critical to applying it to computers and consumer electronics. Another challenge will be making the technology rugged enough for commercial applications.

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