Researchers at Urbana- Champaign and Texas, Dallas say crystals made from boron arsenide could be more effective at cooling down electronics. This is what the boron arsenide crystal looks like under an electron microscope. (Photo via the University of Texas at Dallas)
It’s normal for electronics like computers and smartphones to get hot after hours of use. The device is just doing its job. But with companies rushing to release more powerful, faster, and smaller electronics, heat management becomes an issue. The more powerful a device, the more it generates heat, which isn’t good for the chips housed inside (or your laps). The amount of heat that can be dissipated is limited, but a team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas at Dallas believes they’ve found a solution: crystals.
Lead by assistant professor of physics Bing Lv, the team created crystals from a semiconducting material known as boron arsenide that has an extremely high thermal conductivity. Because the crystal doesn’t grow naturally, it has to be made using a method called chemical vapor transport. It works by combining boron and arsenic while in the vapor phase. Its then cooled and condensed into small crystals. The team then combine extensive materials characterization and uses trial and error synthesis to figure out the conditions that will produce high-quality crystals.
This new discovery could be huge for electronics. Heat management is a major issue that becomes more complex as devices get smaller and more powerful. Today, most computer chips are made of silicon, which is a crystalline semiconducting material that gets the job done, but it can only handle so much. Diamond is a better thermal conductor with around 2,200 watts per meter-kelvin, but the high cost makes it impractical to use on a wide scale. Boron arsenide crystals would not only be effective, but inexpensive as well.
Researchers have been working on this project for three years. They found that boron arsenide worked three times better than the best heat dissipaters on the market. But this isn’t new knowledge. In 2013, researchers at Boston College and the Naval Research Laboratory predicted that boron arsenide could perform as well as diamond as a heat spreader. Lv and his team took the research further and created boron arsenide crystals, but with a low thermal conductivity of 200 watts per meter-kelvin. Now, they’ve gotten the conductivity up to 1,000 watts per meter-kelvin.
Though results of these crystals have been promising so far, the team is far from done. They’re currently figuring out if it’s possible to create boron arsenide on a large scale. If the team finds a way, then boron arsenide could be “the future of electronics” as Lv says. He continues: "Its semiconducting properties are very comparable to silicon, which is why it would be ideal to incorporate boron arsenide into semiconducting devices." Until the crystals are ready for the masses, make sure to give your electronics a much-needed break.
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