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Silver, diamond make cooling composite for defense systems

Posted: 08 Mar 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:cooling? diamond? composite? radar? shims?

Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) researchers have developed a solid composite material with silver and diamond for cooling microelectronics used in defense systems.

The research aims to produce a silver-diamond thermal shim of 250?m or less. The ratio of silver to diamond in the material can be tailored to allow the shim to be bonded with low thermal-expansion stress to the high-power wide-bandgap semiconductors planned for next generation phased array radars.

Thermal shims pull heat away from high-power semiconductors and transfer it to heat dissipating devices such as fins, fans or heat pipes. These semiconductors are usually in very confined operating spaces, making it necessary for the shims to be made from a material that packs high thermal conductivity into a tiny, very thin, structure.

Microscope image of the diamond particles used in the composite.

Diamonds provide the bulk of thermal conductivity, while silver suspends the diamond particles within the composite and contributes to high thermal conductivity that is 25 percent better than copper. To date, tests indicate that the silver-diamond composite performs extremely well in two key areas!thermal conductivity and thermal expansion.

"We have already observed clear performance benefits!an estimated temperature decrease from 285<C to 181<C!using a material of 50 percent diamond in a 250?m shim," said Jason Nadler, research engineer, GTRI, who is leading the project.

The researchers are approaching diamond percentages that can be as high as 85 percent, in a shim less than 250?m in thickness. These increased percentages of diamond are yielding even better performance results in prototype testing.

Nadler added that this novel approach to silver-diamond composites holds definite technology transfer promise. No material currently available offers this combination of performance and thinness.

Diamond is the most thermally conductive natural material, with a rating of approximately 2,000W/m-K, which is a measure of thermal efficiency. Silver, which is among the most thermally conductive metals, has a significantly lower rating of only 400W/m-K.

Nadler explained that adding silver is necessary to bond the loose diamond particles into a stable matrix; allow precise cutting of the material to form components of exact sizes; match thermal expansion to that of the semiconductor device being cooled; create a more thermally effective interface between the diamonds.

Nadler and his team use diamond particles, resembling grains of sand that can be molded into a planar form.

The problem is a sand-like material doesn't hold together well. A matrix of soft, ductile and sticky silver is needed to keep the diamond particles together and achieve a robust composite material.

Thermal expansion
Also, because the malleable silver matrix completely surrounds the diamond particles, it supports cutting the composite to the precise dimensions needed to form components like thermal shims. And silver allows those components to bond readily to other surfaces, such as semiconductors.

As any material heats up, it expands at its own individual rate, a behavior known as its coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE).

When structures made from different materials!such as a wide-bandgap semiconductor and a thermal shim!are joined, it is vital that their thermal expansion coefficients be identical. Bonded materials that expand at different rates can separate easily.

Diamond has a very low coefficient of thermal expansion of about 2ppm/K. But the materials used to make wide-bandgap semiconductors!such as silicon carbide or gallium nitride!have higher CTEs, generally in the range of 3-5ppm/K.

By adding in just the right percentage of silver, which has a CTE of about 20ppm/K, the GTRI team can tailor the silver-diamond composite to expand at the same rate as the semiconductor material. By matching thermal expansion rates during heating and cooling, the researchers have enabled the two materials to maintain a strong bond.

Unlike metals, which conduct heat by moving electrons, diamond conducts heat by means of phonons, which are vibrational wave packets that travel through crystalline and other materials. Introducing silver between the diamond-particle interfaces helps phonons move from particle to particle and supports thermal efficiency.

"It's a challenge to use diamond particles to fill space in a plane with high efficiency and stability," Nadler said. "In recent years we've built image analysis and other tools that let us perform structural morphological analyzes on the material we've created. That data helps us understand what's actually happening within the composite!including how the diamond-particle sizes are distributed and how the silver actually surrounds the diamonds."

A remaining hurdle involves the need to move beyond performance testing to an in depth analysis of the silver-diamond material's functionality. Nadler's aim is to explain the thermal conductivity of the composite from a fundamental materials standpoint, rather than relying solely on performance results.

The extremely small size of the thermal shims makes such in depth testing difficult, because existing testing methods require larger amounts of material. However, Nadler and his team are evaluating several testbed technologies that hold promise for detailed thermal conductivity analysis.

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