Major heat dissipation breakthrough. But will electronics designers take any notice?

17-11-2016 | By Paul Whytock

News this week that scientists have developed thermal management technology that could help with the design of smaller chips has coincided with a new market study suggesting 40% of electronics engineers do not consider heat dissipation a design priority.

The study comes from the 6SigmaET team at Future Facilities, a thermal simulation tool provider, and it found that 20% of engineers say thermal issues are a common cause of expensive and time-consuming late stage design complications. Despite these thermal related issues the survey of over 350 professional electronics engineers revealed that 40% of engineers still consider thermal management to be a low priority in their current design processes.

Needless to say this is a surprising figure because it is a well established fact that controlling the amount and flow of heat through semiconductor materials is a critical design element in developing smaller, faster and more powerful computer chips. Without adequate heat dissipation strategies components become unreliable and prone to failure. Interestingly, nearly two thirds of engineers studies said it is easier to over engineer the thermal aspects of designs rather than use tools to optimise thermal performance. 

Important Thermal Breakthrough

But despite those study results thermal management remains a key semiconductor design element and for the first time an international team of scientists led by a researcher at the University of California, Riverside has modified the energy spectrum of acoustic phonons that spread heat through crystalline materials by confining them to nanometer-scale semiconductor structures. These results have important implications in the thermal management of electronic devices.

The team used semiconductor nanowires from Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) synthesised by researchers in Finland, and an imaging technique called Brillouin-Mandelstam light scattering spectroscopy to study the movement of phonons through the crystalline nanostructures.

By changing the size and shape of the GaAs nanostructures the researchers were able to alter the energy spectrum, or dispersion, of acoustic phonons. Controlling phonon dispersion is crucial for improving heat removal from nanoscale electronic devices.

It can also be used to improve the efficiency of thermoelectric energy generation. In that case, decreasing thermal conductivity by phonons is beneficial for thermoelectric devices that generate energy by applying a temperature gradient to semiconductors.

So will electronics engineers take notice of this breakthrough? Possibly. The study performed by 6SigmaET revealed that 37% of engineers think they should be spending more time on thermal management and 75% of designers admitted they don’t generally test a device’s thermal operation early enough in the design process.

More than a quarter of engineers wait until a design is complete before testing its thermal operation and 56% only test thermal design after a physical prototype has been produced.

Astonishingly, 13% of engineers don’t test the thermal performance of their designs at all and 40% of those surveyed said they find thermal simulation techniques too complex and time consuming.

It seems pretty clear that if chip design is going to progress then more engineers need to fully embrace thermal simulation techniques and to grasp any technological breakthroughs that can increase thermal management efficiencies in semiconductor-based devices.


By Paul Whytock

Paul Whytock is Technology Correspondent for Electropages. He has reported extensively on the electronics industry in Europe, the United States and the Far East for over thirty years. Prior to entering journalism, he worked as a design engineer with Ford Motor Company at locations in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium.