November 1, 2018

The appetite for faster, smaller, and more powerful technology has spurred incredible innovations – but it also created an overwhelming demand on the way electronic devices handle the heat they generate.

This is the problem that inspires Penn State mechanical engineers, Sukwon Choi, Brian Foley, and Bladimir Ramos-Alvarado, to study new ways to predict and mitigate thermal transport issues in nanoscale systems.

Engineers, assemble!

If you’ve ever moved a computer off your lap when it got too hot, you’ve experienced these issues firsthand. Today, heat output is a concern in almost all modern technologies like smartphones, hybrid and electrical vehicles, solar panels, and smart power grids.

“That’s why people need us!” Choi, the Kenneth K. and Olivia J. Kuo Early Career Professor in mechanical engineering, said. “In any electronic system, higher temperatures are going to have a negative effect.”

And when the components of these devices are shrunk to the nanoscale, the heat strain simply can’t be ignored. It not only affects the performance, lifetime, and practical use of current devices, but also limits the technology’s exponential advancement.

It’s not uncommon for design engineers to build new products and only become aware of the heat issues once it’s built. From there, mitigation strategies would need to be quickly added, like heat sinks or fans to compensate.

“Fundamentally, we want to stop that cycle of people creating things and then wondering why they end up getting too hot,” Foley, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said. “Considering these electro-thermal models and making critical thermal decisions early on won’t just save money, but it will make immensely better technologies.”

The C-Spot Lab group.

(Left to right): Bikragmjit Chalteyee, Yiwen Song, Sukwon Choi, Brian Foley, Daniel Shoemaker, and James Spencer Lundh.

A new frontier

All co-hires of the Penn State Materials Research Institute, the team has their sights set on a cutting-edge semi-conductor material that has the potential to inspire the next generation of tech.

A newly discovered material, cubic boron arsenide, is predicted to conduct and withstand much higher amounts of heat than the popular semi-conductors used today. With its ultra-high thermal conductivity, potentially superior electronic properties, and presumed compatibility with existing electronic materials, there is no doubt cubic boron arsenide is poised to disrupt the market.

Choi explained, “With this material, we can realize the maximum potential of future technologies.”

Only surpassed by diamond, the team wants to be the trailblazers to bring this revolution to the electronics field. “There is no question this is a potential path forward,” Foley said. “But instead of waiting for the market, we’re going to accelerate it.”

In anticipation, the team are already seeking seed funding and collaborating with other Penn State researchers to synthesize the first samples of the material.

“We have to lead the charge with this,” Foley said. “It’s not every day a semi-conductor with thermal properties like this falls out of the sky.”

Foley and his graduate students.

Foley with graduate students Song and Shoemaker.

One-stop shop

In their unofficial research center, the Center for Studying the Physics of Transport (C-SPOT), they plan to study the material, create simulations to test its effectiveness, and fuse the material into devices to see firsthand how it works. Originally envisioned by Karen Thole, distinguished professor and department head, the team estimates that only two other universities in the world have the ability to explore boron arsenide on this scale.

“Our ability to dig into this is unique to Penn State,” Foley said. “Even though it’s a new frontier, we have a team in place that can study these issues of heat transport on the nanoscale from beginning to end, starting with the synthesis and concluding with functional devices.”

In the hands of Ramos-Alvarado, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, the fundamental physics of the material will be examined. He explained, “From experiments, you can determine that yes, it is a highly conductive material, but you can’t explain why. My work will go deeply into the heat transfer process at the energy carrier level.”

Next, Foley will study the experimental properties to confirm those simulations, proving its validity as a semi-conductor. Finally, Choi will test the material’s effectiveness when it’s been incorporating into a device, confirming the functionality once it’s in use.

While this kind of technology can often take decades to mature, bringing together these minds can dramatically expedite the efforts. Foley said, “Other research areas sometimes wait for industry to make the advancements, but for us, we’re planning to be the first to take this risk.”

Ramos-Alvarado concluded, “It’s our time now.”


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