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How miracle material may keep electronics cool in the future

July 16, 2015, 8:58 PM UTC
3-D structure of hexogonal boron nitride sheets and boron nitride nanotubes.
Shahsavari Group

Researchers from Rice University think they have a potential solution to one of the thorniest problems affecting electronics: Heat. As in getting the heat generated by those components out and away from them so they don’t fry.

In a new analysis, Rouzbeh Shahsavari, a Rice assistant professor and Navid Sakhayand, a former graduate student, think that a 3-D form of boron nitride, known as white graphene, combines the perfect qualities to keep electronics cool enough to keep functioning longer.

To back up a tad, graphene is a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms bonded together in a repeating latticework of hexagons. It can be extremely hard or very soft depending on how it’s constructed.

Boron Nitride in its 2-D sheet form looks just like regular graphene, except for one big difference. It is an insulator, meaning it does not conduct electricity, while graphene itself is a super-efficient conductor.

White graphene does, however, conduct heat. That means that engineers could build electronics that would route heat out and away from key components, even through various layers of material.

As Shahsavari told Rice University’s news service:

“One of the drawbacks in electronics, especially when you have layered materials on a substrate, is that heat moves very quickly in one direction, along a conductive plane, but not so good from layer to layer. Multiple stacked graphene layers is a good example of this.”

If there’s a way to combine 2-D layers of white graphene with 3-D nanotubes that burrow through the layers, heat can be transferred down and away to alleviate hot spots.

Shahsavari, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering, told Rice that:

“3-D thermal-management system can open up opportunities for thermal switches, or thermal rectifiers, where the heat flowing in one direction can be different than the reverse direction … by changing the shape of the material, or changing its mass – say one side is heavier than the other – to create a switch. The heat would always prefer to go one way, but in the reverse direction it would be slower.”

Graphene is already viewed as something of a miracle material that may end up replacing silicon as the foundation of electronics because of its electrical conductive qualities. Now with the white graphene variety, it could also serve so keep those electronics cool.

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