Testing Thermal Interface Materials

Illustration: Parker Chomerics

Thermal interface materials, TIMs, provide the thermal pathway for transferring heat from components to heat sinks. At one time, most TIMs were simple, homogenous pads filled with thermally conductive fillers. But increasing power levels of processors and other components present a continuous need for improved thermal material performance. Today, a much wider range of TIMs is available, including phase change materials, compounds, and gap fillers.

When choosing a TIM, its essential to understand the testing methods to accurately determine the materials bulk thermal properties and in its performance.

The most common test is ASTM D5470: Linear Rod Method. This is the standard for measuring the thermal impedance of a TIM. Heat flow is carefully controlled through a test sample of a TIM. Typically, a heater is attached to an aluminum cylinder that has thermocouples arranged in series.

The thermocouples not only report temperature, but also the heat transfer through the known aluminum cylinder. Next, the interface material is compressed between the raised cylinder and an identical lower unit. Finally, a cold plate is attached to the bottom of the assembly to ensure the direction of heat transfer. The assembly can accommodate various material thicknesses and apply a range of pressure to the sample.

Another TIM test is laser flash diffusivity. Here, a small sample of interface material is subjected to a short pulse of laser energy. The temperature rise of the material is then recorded at a very high sample rate. Diffusivity is calculated using the equation shown below.

k = D/ρCp

Where:

k= thermal conductivity;

D = thermal diffusivity,

ρ = density of sample,

and Cp = specific heat.

The halftime of the sample is defined as the time between the start of the laser pulse to when the temperature of the back side of the sample has risen to half of its maximum value. The other variable in equation 1 is L, the thickness of the sample, which may be directly measured. Once diffusivity is known, it can be used in equation 2 to calculate thermal conductivity.

This laser flash method is very accurate as long as the density and specific heat are well known. However, it only measures thermal conductivity, as opposed to the ASTM standard which also measures thermal impedance. Thus, a key drawback to laser flash testing is that it doesn’t provide the contact resistance.

In comparisons of interface materials must be carried out by the user to provide meaningful results. Interface material testing procedures are different than heat sink testing methods. When testing several heat sinks it is possible to affix a thermocouple to the component’s case surface or to the heat sink itself and draw direct comparisons of performance. However, this approach will not work if the interface material is changed. To accurately compare interface materials, die-level temperature measurements must be taken, while the same heat sink is used in identical PCB and flow conditions.

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