How Did Thermal Performance of Aluminum Heat Sink Compare to Copper?

Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) was recently tasked with creating a more cost-effective and lighter solution for a customer that was looking to replace a relatively large heat sink, which was dissipating the heat from four components on a printed circuit board (PCB). The customer did not want a skived heat sink, so ATS engineers created a custom aluminum heat sink embedded with copper heat pipes to draw the heat away from the components.

ATS engineers worked on a comparison of a copper heat sink with an aluminum heat sink that had embedded heat pipes running above the components. Analysis showed that the aluminum heat sink nearly matched the thermal performance of the copper and was within the margin required by the client. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

ATS engineers used analytical modeling and CFD simulations to examine the thermal performance of two aluminum heat sink designs: one with heat pipes that stopped at the edge of the components and the other with heat pipes that ran above the components. Analysis demonstrated that the design with heat pipes running above the components kept junction temperatures within 2°C of the original copper heat sink and an average difference of less than 1°C.

Peter Konstatilakis, a Field Application Engineer at ATS who worked with the client on this analysis, sat down with Marketing Communications Specialist Josh Perry to discuss the technical details behind the thermal analysis and the results that were presented to the customer.

JP: Thanks for taking the time to talk about this project Peter. What was it that they approached you with? What was the problem or the challenge?
PK: There was a long lead time with sourcing this copper; it’s a relatively large and heavy part.  This size bar of copper isn’t typically stocked. So, we were having sourcing issues with this non-standard copper stock and they were having weight and cost issues. They had to cut this heat sink in half for testing because they were overweight on the board. Through shock and vibe testing, if the heat sink is too heavy then it can actually rip out of the board.

An alternative was to make the heat sink through a manufacturing process called skiving. Skived heat sinks have a fin count tolerance, so you may have more fins than are specified or you might have less fins, and some of the fins may be curved, which poses cosmetic issues with skived heat sinks; the fins aren’t perfectly straight. It’s not really an issue thermally, especially if companies don’t see the heat sinks too often, but this client’s customers see the boards, see the heat sinks, and they wanted them to look perfect.

Instead of having to get this copper, we thought, why don’t we make an aluminum heat sink with heat pipes? That’s sort of where this came from.

JP: So the problem with skiving a heat sink was mostly an issue with aesthetics?
PK: Yeah, exactly. The tolerance on the fin spacing was +/- three fins, due to the high number of fins. I did a quick analytical analysis with our heat sink calculation tool and the difference in thermal resistance was maybe 1%. That was because the heat sink has such a large surface area and losing a fin or two only changes the performance by a percent or less. On a smaller heat sink, you will see a greater difference. I told the customer but they said that they still didn’t want to go with skived for aesthetic reasons. Instead, we extruded aluminum and then we put heat pipes in the base.

JP: Why was it necessary to add heat pipes to the heat sink?
PK: The big thing, in this case, is the spreading. You can see the locations of the components and then how large the heat sink is. There’s definitely a lot of spreading resistance in the base because there’s so much distance between the heat sink and all the components, so that’s the main issue that we were trying to take care of with the heat pipes. An aluminum heat sink with heat pipes is definitely a lot lighter than a copper heat sink, about three times lighter. Overall it’s much easier to source and also much cheaper. I think it’s again about three times as much for copper.

JP: When this challenge came across your desk, what was the first thing that you looked at? How did you approach the challenge?
PK: What I did was look at our analytical tool again and I modeled this heat sink in all copper. Since there are four components it’s a little complicated, but I modeled them as one component in the middle of the heat sink with gap pad and everything and got the performance of that heat sink. Once I did that, I ran CFD simulations on the copper heat sink with the components placed as they are in the application and the performance values were within 15%. So, doing that, we knew that we had a good CFD model.

After running the baseline simulations on the copper, I moved onto the aluminum heat sink knowing that we had a good CFD model and that we could trust the results. I used the aluminum heat sink and put heat pipes in the base. I started with heat pipes out in front of the components and then the next simulation was with heat pipes above the components. Obviously, if the heat pipes are above the component then you’ll get a little better spreading resistance and the heat will flow better.

Aluminum Heat Sinks

The first of two aluminum heat sink designs had heat pipes that stopped at the components. This design was not as effective as when the heat pipes ran above the components. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

JP: How significant of a difference was it?
PK: From the base line of the copper heat sink, it was around a 1-2°C difference, on average.

After looking at these two simulations, I met with Dr. Kaveh Azar (founder, CEO and President of ATS) to discuss the results. With the heat pipes above the components, we were seeing an average difference of less than 1%. It performs worse by less than 1% and I’m currently doing a couple of other simulations to see if we can improve that by adding more heat pipes, making the heat pipes wider, or even running less conservative heat pipes since the conductivity I’m running with is 2000 W/m-K axially and 400 W/m-K through the cross section. Really, the axial conductivity should be around 20,000-50,000 W/m-K, and the copper wall and wick effective conductivity is around 100-200 W/m-K due to the low conductivity of the porous copper sintered wick. The conservative values I used were to get the simulation up and running, while I’ll end up analytically determining the respective heat pipe conductivity.

I’m also doing an all-aluminum simulation just so we can see what that looks like and so we can see how much better the copper heat sink is in general.

This turned into just looking at the heat sink and trying to put heat pipes in them to seeing if we could also vary the length and see if we could get better performance. Your pressure drop increases as the length increases, so the higher the pressure drop then the lower the air flow is going to be in the system, the lower the airflow then the lower the performance. There is sweet spot for the length. I’m looking at that with our analytical calculator. And then the base thickness as well, we’re looking at that too.

Aluminum Heat Sinks

The results of the CFD analysis showed that the average temperature difference between the copper and the second aluminum heat sink design was less than one degree. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

JP: With the aluminum heat sink within 1% of the copper, did that make switching from copper worth it for the customer?
PK: It definitely did. If you’re within 1% and the customer has a little margin already, then it’s worth it because it’s three times lower cost, lower weight, and it will look better because it’s extruded rather than skived.

JP: Just to clarify, what is the difference between skiving and extruding?
PK: Extruding, basically, is pushing a hot piece of metal through a die that is in the shape of a heat sink, so it’s like putting play-doh through a die. You get a heat sink with the fin pitch and everything, where skiving uses a copper block and they come in with a blade and peel the fin out. The blade comes in and pushes a layer up. You can skive aluminum as well and they’re about the same cost, but you can’t extrude copper for a heat sink.

This showed our thermal capability to the customer. It showed that we can design custom heat sinks. We can make them more cost-effective, better performing, whatever they need.

JP: When you’re working through these types of challenges, how much of it becomes a foundation of knowledge that you can then take to another customer’s project?
PK: The more experience that you have, the better. Like any field, the more experience you have then you can look at something and know right off the bat if it’s going to work or not. It also helps in terms of understanding how to model certain applications and where to start with the design.

JP: Did we run these simulations here or did we have (ATS engineer) Sridevi Iyengar run the simulations in India?
PK: We did it here. Sri does a lot, but she uses FloTHERM and I’m quicker with Autodesk CFDesign. FloTHERM can be used for bigger systems because it takes less of a mesh. Generally, FloTHERM only works in rectangular coordinates, where CFDesign works with tetrahedrons, allowing the simulation of angled objects. Since it works with tetrahedrons though, it takes longer to mesh and run than FloTHERM. You can’t really have anything angled in FloTHERM and obtain accurate results. We ended up having to angle the heat pipes in order to contact the components, which are in a different plane than the rest of the heat sink.

JP: I know it is a priority at ATS, but why was it important to have an analytical component, not just CFD, in finding a solution?
PK: Analytical modeling is used to ensure that the CFD results make sense. When you see the graphs from CFD, it looks appealing to the eye and you get drawn to it. It’s science and engineering that is made visible, whereas heat transfer and fluid dynamics (for air) are invisible to the naked eye. Another method of ‘seeing’ heat transfer is using an infrared thermal camera or liquid crystal thermography, while a water tunnel or inducing smoke into the flow can be used to see fluid flow. The analytical also gives us a good first judgement and solid design direction.

Optimization for the length of the heat sink and the base thickness, I did with our analytical tool. CFD simulations take a lot of time, so I can narrow down the number of designs and determine what we want to simulate. Rather than doing 10 different simulations, when each takes on average three or four hours, I can get instant results and say, okay, a 5 mm base is the sweet spot, so let me try in CFD 4 mm thickness, 5 mm, and 6 mm; narrowing it down to three simulations.

Analytical modeling gives us quick what-if scenarios, which we say a lot, and it definitely helps give you an understanding of what to expect. If the numbers are way off then I know something is wrong in the CFD model and I check to see if my mesh and other parameters are correct. It humbles you almost and it helps you understand the application and what you’re simulating. The last thing you want to do is give a customer incorrect data.

It gives you two independent solutions. We say analytically this solution is validated, so we have faith in the model. Now, here is the model and it shows better what we want to do.

To learn more about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc., visit www.qats.com or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.

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