Super-efficient Heat Sink

Back in college, one of my professors told me that computers are just really fancy space heaters. And he was absolutely right.

Yes, processors can run millions, billions, and even trillions of calculations per second nowadays, but what’s the physical result? Turn off the monitor to your computer and it’ll still being doing all the same calculations and processes, but you won’t get to see or read any of its outputs. What a processor really does do in the physical world is generate heat. But for that processor to keep running at optimal performance levels, that heat needs to be dissipated. And that’s where heat sinks come into play.

A heat sink is generally a big mass of material that’s good at absorbing heat very quickly. One side of the heat sink is placed right up against the computer’s processor (or whatever it is that is getting too hot for its own good) to absorb the heat, and the other side of the heat sink is designated as the cool side, which ends up getting rid of, or dissipating, that absorbed heat energy. To help out this big mass of material dissipate heat even more quickly, fans are often employed to generate air flow to cool off the cool side of the heat sink, which allows the hot side to absorb more heat, and so on and so forth.

However, this whole setup is typically very inefficient. The noise you hear when you start up and run your computer is that fan trying to cool off that heat sink. The whole system is very susceptible to dust and debris, and with all these components, high-performance heat sinks can get expensive. But some engineers over at Sandia National Labs have changed the game. They’ve come up with a heat sink that acts as an impeller that hovers on a hydrodynamic air bearing. That may sound a little confusing and unintuitive, but that’s only because it really is.

Rather than having a fan to cool off the heat sink, the heat sink itself is spinning. It is designed as an impeller, sucking air into its center and forcefully spitting it out the sides. This innovation increases heat sink efficiency by up to 3,000%. Other than the actual method of heat transfer from a heated object to the heat sink itself (an anti-friction, thermally conductive coating), a lot of the key concepts are explained by one of the engineers at Sandia, Jeff Koplow at around 0:58 into this video. What goes unexplained in the video is proprietary, and will likely remain secret through the concept’s development.