Thermal Performance of Macro and Microchannel Cold Plates in Electronics Cooling

In recent years, intense activity has been gone into improving the capabilities of cold plates. Specifically, the use of microchannels has provided great improvements in cold plate thermal performance. Regardless of a cold plate’s channel size, the following equations can be used for heat transfer coefficients when determining thermal performance. [1]


= Nussselt number

Dh = hydraulic diameter

= Reynolds number


ν = kinematic viscosity
Pr = Prandtle number

The pressure drop can also be calculated as:

P = density
f = friction factor

In recent years, microchannel cold plates have gained popularity due to their high performance. Webb shows that the best results can be achieved when the channel aspect ratio is about 7.4, and with a fin aspect ratio of 8. [2] Figure 1 shows a Fin-H copper microchannel with a channel hydraulic diameter of 0.49 mm. Due to the small size of the channels, the flow is generally considered to be laminar. The optimization resulted in a 25-mm wide and 20-mm long microchannel cold plate. [2]

Webb considered both single-pass and two-pass designs on the water side. The two-pass version was made to determine if there was any mal-distribution of the water from the single-pass case.

Microchannel Cold Plates

Figure 1. Copper Microchannel Fin-H Used in a Cold Plate. [2]

Figure 2 shows the thermal resistance of the Fin-H for the 1-pass and 2-pass designs as a function of flow rate.

Figure 2. Thermal Resistance of a Fin-H Cold Plate as a Function of the Water Flow Rate. [2]

This figure shows that the 1-pass version has a much better thermal resistance than the two-pass model for the same flow rate. It also shows that the flow has been distributed relatively uniformly. Figure 3 shows the pressure drop of the cold plate as a function of flow rate for the Fin-H and the Thermaltake Bigwater 735 cooler. [3] The figure shows the pressure drop of the 1-pass design is only 38% of the 2-pass design.

Figure 3. Pressure Drop of a Fin-H Cold Plate and a Thermaltake Cooler as a Function of the Water Flow Rate. [2]

Figure 4 shows the thermal resistance of the Fin-H cooler in the 1-pass design compared to the Thermaltake cooler [3]. At 2.28 l/min the Thermaltake’s thermal resistance is 0.106 K/W. The balance point of the Fin-H for 1-pass is with a thermal resistance of 0.07 K/W at a flow rate of 0.361 l/min. This is only 16% of the flow rate for the Thermaltake cooler.

Referring to Figure 3, the pressure drop is almost the same for both coolers. The major implication is that the microchannel cold plate requires a smaller pump compared to macrochannel cold plates, and provides a 50% increase in thermal performance.

Figure 4. Thermal Resistance of a Fin-H Cold Plate and a Thermaltake Cooler as a Function of the Water Flow Rate. [2]

Another innovative approach is the concept of forced-fed boiling (FFB). [4] Figure 5 shows a schematic of this process. It consists of a micro-grooved, thin copper surface with alternating fins and channels. The microgrooves have a hydraulic diameter of 28 microns, an aspect ratio of 15, and a fin density of 236 fins per cm.

There are feed channels on top of the micro-grooved surface. The fluid is forced through these channels into the microgrooves, which are located on top of the heated surface. The fluid vaporizes in the microgrooves and moves upward, while the liquid flows beneath the escaping vapor. This keeps the surface wet, resulting in an increase of the critical heat flux (CHF).

Figure 5. A Force-Fed Boiling Cold Plate. [4]

Figure 6 shows the heat transfer as a function of the temperature difference between the inlet fluid and the surface for various values of the flow rate for R245fa, a non-aqueous fluid for low pressure refrigeration applications. The figure shows that for heat fluxes of about 200 W/cm2 or less, heat transfer is independent of the flow rate, but this is not the case at higher heat fluxes. It also shows that the slope of the heat flux decreases with increasing temperature difference.

Figure 6. Heat Flux as a Function of the Temperature Difference for the FFB Cold Plate. [4]

Figure 7 shows an interesting trend for the heat transfer coefficient as a function of heat flux for the same fluid. At first, the heat transfer coefficient increases with the increase in heat flux. This indicates that by increasing the heat flux, a phase change process takes place which changes the single-phase flow to two-phase heat transfer. After reaching an impressive peak at 300 KW/m2K, the heat transfer coefficient starts to decrease. This is attributed to local dryouts from bubble generation, which also blocks the microchannels.

Figure 7. Heat Transfer Coefficient as a Function of Heat Flux for the FFB Cold Plate. [4]

While advances in cold plate performance have been incremental, their technology is still evolving. Improvements in microchannel manufacturing will open more opportunities in this field. Microchannel cold plates provide tremendous heat transfer coefficient capacities, but limitations prevent their broad deployment.

Fouling, dryout, and fabrication issues have been major negating factors for microchannel deployment in the broader market. Microchannel cold plates may have particular value in such applications as military, space, and high capacity computing, where service and maintenance are part of the deployment.

However, from the design and problem-solution standpoint, microchannel cold plates can be an effective part of a closed loop liquid cooling system.

1. Dittus, F. and Boelter, L., Publications on Engineering, University of California at Berkley, 1930.
2. Webb, R., High-Performance, Low-Cost Liquid Micro-Channel Cooler, Thermal Challenges in Next Generation Electronic Systems II, Millpress Science Publishers, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2007.
3. Thermaltake Company, 2006.
4. Cetegen, E., Dessiatoun, S., and Ohadi, M., Force Fed Boiling and Condensation for High Heat Flux Applications, VII Minsk International Seminar: Heat Pipes, Heat Pumps, Refrigerators, Power Sources, Minsk, Belarus, 2008.

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