To increase contact conductance between two mating surfaces, a conductive “tape” has been developed by growing dense arrays of carbon nanotubes (CNTs, graphite layers folded into cylinders) on both sides of a thermally conductive metallic foil. When the two mating surfaces are brought into contact with the conductive tape in between, the CNT arrays will adhere to the mating surface. The van der Waals force between the contacting tubes and the mating surface provides adhesion between the two mating surfaces. Even though the thermal contact conductance of a single tube-to-tube contact is small, the tremendous amount of CNTs on the surface leads to a very large overall contact conductance.

Interface contact thermal resistance rises from the microroughness and the macroscopic non-planar quality of mating surfaces. When two surfaces come into contact with each other, the actual contact area may be much less than the total area of the surfaces. The real area of contact depends on the load, the surface roughness, and the elastic and inelastic properties of the surface. This issue is even more important at cryogenic temperatures, where materials become hard and brittle and vacuum is used, which prevents any gas conduction through the interstitial region.

A typical approach to increase thermal contact conductance is to use thermally conducting epoxies or greases, which are not always compatible with vacuum conditions. In addition, the thermal conductivities of these compounds are often relatively low. The CNTs used in this approach can be metallic or semiconducting, depending on the folding angle and diameter. The electrical resistivity of multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) has been reported. MWCNTs can pass a current density and remain stable at high temperatures in air. The thermal conductivity of a MWCNT at room temperature is measured to be approximately 3,000 W/m-K, which is much larger than that of diamond. At room temperature, the thermal conductance of a 0.3 cm2 array of CNTs was measured to be as high as 10 W/K. The high thermal conductivity and the nanoscale size make CNTs ideal as thermal interface materials.

The CNT-based thermal tape can be used for the thermal management of microelectronic packages and electronic systems. It also can be integrated with current device technology and packaging. The material would allow for an efficient method to manage excess heat generation without requiring any additional power. Lastly, the CNT tape can be used to enhance thermal contact conductance across two mating surfaces on some NASA missions.

This work was done by Ali Kashani of Atlas Scientific for Goddard Space Flight Center. For further information, contact the Goddard Innovative Partnerships Office at (301) 286-5810. GSC-15607-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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