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Cooling Tech

Local company solves a big problem: how to cool computers

Photo: David Croxford

The Problem

For decades, engineers have known that heat seriously hinders a computer’s performance. The harder your CPU or graphics card works, the hotter it gets. In fact, some of today’s overworked microchips would explode if the designers didn’t include a cooling system. Until now, those clunky systems had more in common with the air conditioner in your car than the other whiz-bang components of your computer. But the micro-channel, liquid-cooled heat sinks of Hawaii’s Pipeline Micro may change that.

The System

“The cooling loop is really quite simple,” says CEO Wayne Karo, sketching the three-part system. The centerpiece is a tiny copper heat sink mounted over the CPU. Micro-channels (so called because the distance between them is measured in microns, or hundredths of a millimeter) are cut into one side of the copper wafer. In a closed loop, a micro-pump flows fluid through those fins. As it passes through the heat sink, the fluid boils away to a gas, carrying off excess heat. Finally, a small condenser converts the gas back to a fluid.

The Second Problem

According to Seri Lee, Pipeline’s new chief technology officer, thermo-management experts have long considered a system like this. The problem has always been that the bubbles of the boiling fluid disrupt the flow through the micro-channels. But, in 2007, Weilin Qu, a researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, unexpectedly discovered a way to stabilize the boiling fluid. Pipeline licensed this new technology from UH and this December, it raised $7 million in venture capital.

The Market

Heat isn’t a problem just for computers; it’s the bugbear of all kinds of electronics. Pipeline hopes to see its heat sinks in devices as distinct as photovoltaic cells, LED lights and high-tech batteries. For now, though, it’s focused on building prototypes of its cooling systems into the products of some of the biggest players in elec- tronics. According to Karo, Pipeline expects to sign major contracts by the end of the year.

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