Category Archives: Heat Sinks

Industry Developments: Extrusion Profile Heat Sinks

By Norman Quesnel
Senior Member of Marketing Staff
Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS)

Extruded metal heat sinks are among the lowest cost, widest used heat spreaders in electronics thermal management. Besides their affordability, extruded heat sinks are lightweight, readily cut to size and shape, and capable of high levels of cooling.

Metal Choices

Most extruded heat sinks are made from aluminum alloys, mainly from the 6000 alloy series, where aluminum dominates. Trace amounts of other elements are added, including magnesium and silicon. These alloys are easy to extrude and machine, are weldable, and can be hardened.

Common alloys for extruded heat sinks are the 6063 metals. These can be extruded as complex shapes, with very smooth surfaces. 6061 aluminum is also used for extrusions. Its tensile strength (up to 240 MPa) is superior to 6063 alloys (up to 186 MPa). In addition to heat sinks, these aluminum alloys are popular for architectural applications such as window and door frames. [1]

Extrusion Profile Heat Sinks
Figure 1. An extruded aluminum heat sink with a black anodized finish. [2]

The surfaces of these metals can be anodized to replace their naturally occurring surface layer of aluminum oxide. Anodizing provides more heat transfer, corrosion resistance and better adhesion for paint primers. It is an electrochemical process that increases surface emissivity, corrosion and wear resistance, and electrical isolation.

The Extruding Process

Aluminum alloys are popular for extruding as heat sinks because they provide both malleability and formability. They can be easily machined and are as little as one-third the density of steel. This results in extrusions that are both strong and stable, at a reduced cost relative to other materials.

Figure 2. Heated aluminum alloy billets are pushed through a die to produce extruded length heat sinks and other parts. [3]

The aluminum extrusion process starts with designing and creating the die that will shape the heat sink profile. Once this has been done, a cylindrical billet of aluminum is heated up in a forge to high temperatures, generally between 800-925°F (427-496°C). Next, a lubricant is added to the aluminum to prevent it from sticking to any of the machinery. It is then placed on a loader and pressure is applied with a ram to push heated aluminum through the die.

During this process, nitrogen is added in order to prevent oxidation. The extruded part will pass completely through the die and out the other side. It has now been elongated in the shape of the die opening. The finished extrusion is then cooled, and if necessary, a process of straightening and hardening creates the finished product.

They can be cut to the desired lengths, drilled and machined, and undergo a final aging process before being ready for market. [4]

Finished heat sinks typically come with anodized surfaces, which can enhance their thermal performance. Alternatively, a chromate finish provides some corrosion protection, or can be used as a primer before a final paint or powder coating is applied. [5]

Shapes of Extruded Heat Sinks

Extruded heat sink profiles range from simple flat back fin structures to complex geometries for optimized cooling. They can be used for natural (passive) or forced convection (active) with an added fan or blower. Extruded profiles can also include special geometries and groove patterns for use with clip or push pin attachment systems. [6]

Figure 3. Extruded heat sinks are available in many shapes and lengths. [6]

Extrusions are also available in bulk lengths, e.g. 8 feet, which can be cut to different lengths per customer needs.

Optimizing Thermal Performance

6063 aluminum alloy has a thermal conductivity of 201-218 W/(mK). Higher tensile strength 6061 aluminum’s thermal conductivity ranges from 151-202 W/(mK).

Besides choosing the aluminum alloy, selecting an optimal extruded heat sink should factor in its overall dimensions and weight, the specified thermal resistance, and the extrusion shape (flat-back, flat-back with gap, hollow, double-sided, etc.). [7]

Extruded heat sinks can be designed with very thin, and thus more, fins than other sink types. They can be extruded with aspect ratios of around 8:1, which can greatly optimize heat sink performance. A heat sink’s aspect ratio is basically the comparison of its fin height to the distance between its fins.

In typical heat sinks the aspect ratio is between 3:1 and 5:1. A high aspect ratio heat sink has taller fins with a smaller distance between them for a ratio that can be 8:1 to 16:1 or greater.

Figure 4. Different thin fin extruded heat sinks mounted on a PCB. [8]

Thus, a high aspect ratio heat sink provides greater density of fins in a given footprint than with a more common size sink. The great benefit is the increased amount of heat dissipating surface area it provides due to its additional fins. Further, these heat sinks do not occupy any more length or width. The result is a more efficient heat sink with higher performance per gram in the same footprint. [9]


An extruded heat sink is used mainly to increase the surface area available for heat transfer from high-power semiconductor devices, thus reducing a given semiconductor’s external case temperature, as well as its internal junction temperature.

Figure 5. Extruded heat sinks mounted on processors by clips (left) and push pins (right). [10]

This allows the semiconductor devices to perform at their highest level, with maximum reliability. Such semiconductor devices include (but are not limited to) RF power transistors, RF power amplifiers, Power MOSFETs, IGBTs, inverter power modules, and thyristor modules.

Figure 5. Extruded heat sinks screwed onto a brick DC-DC converter. [11]

In some power conversion circuit applications, large diodes, rectifiers, diode modules and even high-power resistors (thick film, etc.) can also require thermal contact with an extruded heat sink. For cooling DC-DC power converters and power modules, extruded heat sinks are available for full, half, quarter and one-eighth brick sizes



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Optimizing Heat Sink Base Spreading Resistance to Enhance Thermal Performance

(This article was featured in an issue of Qpedia Thermal e-Magazine, an online publication dedicated to the thermal management of electronics. To get the current issue or to look through the archives, visit

Heat sinks are routinely used in electronics cooling applications to keep critical components below a recommended maximum junction temperature. The total resistance to heat transfer from junction to air, Rja, can be expressed as a sum of the following resistance values as shown in Equation 1 and displayed in Figure 1.

Where, Rjc is the internal thermal resistance from junction to the case of the component. RTIM is the thermal resistance of the thermal interface material. Rf is the total thermal resistance through the fins. The final term in Equation 1 represents the resistance of the fluid, e.g. air, going through the heat sink where m is the mass flow rate and Cp is the heat capacity of the fluid. As Equation 2 shows, Rcond and Rconv are the conduction and convection resistance respectively through the heat sink fins respectively.

Heat Sinks

Fig. 1 – Resistance network of a typical heat sink in electronics cooling. [1]

Fig. 2 – Heat source on a heat sink base. [2]

Rs stands for the spreading resistance that is non-zero when the heat sink base is larger than the component. The next few sections show the full analytical solution for calculating spreading resistance, followed by an approximate simplified solution and the amount of error from the full solution and finally the use of these solutions to model and optimize a heat sink.

Analytical Solution of Spreading Resistance

Lee et al. [2] derived an analytical solution for the spreading resistance. Figure 2 shows a cross-section of a circular heat source with radius a on the base with radius b and thickness t. The heat, q, originates from the source, spreads out over the base and dissipates into the fluid on the other side with heat transfer coefficient, h. For heat transfer through finned heat sinks, the effective heat transfer coefficient is related to thermal resistance of the fins, Rf as shown in Equation 3. For square heat source and plates, the values of a and b can be approximated by finding an effective radius as shown in equations 4 and 5.

h = heat transfer coefficient [W/m2K]
a = effective radius of the heater [m]
Aheater = area of the heater [m2]
b = effective radius of the heat sink base [m]
Abase = total area of the heat sink base [m2]

The derivation of the analytical solution starts with the Laplace equation for conduction heat transfer and applying the boundary conditions. Equation 6 shows the final analytical solution for spreading resistance. The values for the eigenvalue can be computed by using the Bessel function of the first kind at the outer edge of the plate, r=b as shown in Equation 7.

k = Thermal Conductivity of the plate or heat sink [W/mK]
J1 = Bessel function of the first kind
λn = Eigenvalue that can be computed using Equation (3) at r = b
t = thickness of the heat sink base [m]

Lee et al. [2] also offered an approximation as shown in Equation 8 along with the approximation for the eigenvalues as shown in Equation 9. This approximation eliminates the need for calculating complex formulas that involve the Bessel functions and can be computed by a simple calculator.

Approximation vs. Full Solution

Simons [3] compared the full solution (Equations 6 and 7) with the approximations shown in (Equations 8 and 9). The problem contained a 10 mm square heat source on a 2.5 mm thick plate with a conductivity of 25 W/mK, 20 mm width and varying length, L as shown in Figure 3. Figure 4 shows that the percentage error increases with length but stays relatively low. Less than 10% error is expected for lengths up to 50 mm; five times the length of the heater. This is acceptable for most engineering problems since analytical solutions are first-cut approximations that should later be verified through empirical testing and/or CFD simulations. However, the full analytical solution should be used if the heater-to-heat sink base area difference gets much larger or if a more accurate solution is desired.

Fig. 3 – Example problem for comparing analytical and approximate solutions for spreading resistance. [3]

Fig. 4 – Percent error between the analytical and the approximate solution of spreading resistance for the example shown in Figure 3. [3]

Optimizing Heat Sink Performance

The goal of any electronic cooling solution is to lower the component junction temperature, Tj. For a given Rjc and RTIM, the objective is to maximize heat sink performance by reducing the spreading resistance, Rs, and the fin resistance Rf.

The spreading resistance can be reduced by increasing base thickness. However, most electronics applications are limited by total heat sink height and thus any increase in base thickness leads to shorter fins which reduce the total area of the fins Afins. For a fixed heat transfer coefficient (the heat transfer coefficient is a function of fin design and air velocity and we can assume it is fixed for this exercise) a reduction in the fin area increases Rf as shown in Equation 2. Equation 10 shows this combined heat sink resistance, Rhs, as a function of the spreading and fin resistance.

Thus, for a given fin design, the thermal engineer must choose the appropriate heat sink base thickness to optimize heat sink performance. To illustrate this point, let’s take an example of an application with the parameters as shown in Table 1.

Table 1 – Example Heat Sink Application

Figure 5 shows a graph of the total thermal resistance of the heat sink, Rhs and spreading resistance, Rs as a function of base thickness for copper and aluminum material. (Note that the final term from Equations 1 and 10 is ignored because it is constant and does not contribute to the understanding of spreading resistance). The graph shows that spreading resistance improves monotonically with increased base thickness. However, the total thermal resistance has an optimal point between 2-4 mm base thicknesses. For base thicknesses less than 2 mm, there is a sharp increase in spreading resistance which leads to a higher overall thermal resistance.

Fig. 5 – Total and spreading resistance of the example shown in Table 1 for a 50 mm heat sink.

On the other hand, increasing the base thickness above 4 or 5 mm gives diminishing marginal returns; the improvement in spreading resistance is minimal compared to the increase in thermal resistance due to the reduced fin area. Additionally, the graph also shows that higher conductivity materials such as copper, improves thermal performance across the entire domain.


The heat spreading resistance is an important factor when designing a heat sink for cooling electronics components. The full analytical solution for calculating the spreading resistance, shown in Equations 6 and 7, can be substituted with the approximations shown in Equations 8 and 9 with minimal error. The error increases with increased difference between the heat sink base and heater size and the complete analytical model should be used if needed. The analytical model can be used to choose the right heat sink base thickness that optimizes heat sink performance as shown in Figure 5.

Techniques such as higher conductivity materials, embedded heat pipes, vapor chambers etc. are available if the spreading resistance is major obstacle in the cooling. Thermal engineers must balance the increased weight and cost of such techniques against the benefits for each application.

1. “Spreading Resistance of Single and Multiple Heat Sources,” Qpedia. September 2010
2. Seri Lee et al. “Constriction/Spreading Resistance Model for Electronics Packaging,” 1995.
3. Simons, Robert

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or

What are the benefits of using Pin Fin Heat Sinks in thermal management of electronics

Engineers tasked with designing modern electronics face a number of issues. Expectations are for more functionality, more power, and more components in ever-smaller packages but also with quick turnaround for production and staying within tight budget parameters.

Thermal management is a critical aspect of the design process and, as demand for component-density and miniaturization continues to increase, engineers need cooling solutions that fit into small spaces, will not cause project cost overruns, and will provide the best heat transfer possible for today’s modern,  processors.

Heat sinks and convection cooling remain the go-to solutions for most systems and high-efficiency Pin Fin heat sinks are designed to meet the requirements of modern electronics cooling with little extra cost added. In particular, the pin fin heat sink geometry is designed to provide increased surface area for heat transfer, low thermal resistance from base to fins at high airflow (200-plus LFM), and work in environments where the direction of airflow is ambiguous.

Pin Fin Heat Sinks

Pin fin heat sinks from Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS). Pin fin heat sinks provide low thermal resistance at high LFM. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

How does the Pin Fin geometry work?

Barry Dagan, an engineer at Cool Innovations, Inc., wrote a piece for New Electronics in 2009 that explained how the pin fin structure uses the ambient airflow to enhance its thermal performance. [1]

“Any heat sink removes heat by ‘breaking’ the boundary layers of still air that are wrapped around its surface because still air is a very good thermal insulator,” Dagan explained. “The boundary layers are broken by accelerating the flow of air into the heat sink – either using fans and forced airflow or via the chimney effect. In either case, the faster the airstream, the more likely the boundary layers are to break and the more effective the heat sink will be.”

He added, “The round, aerodynamic pin design reduces resistance to surrounding airstreams that enter the pin array, while simultaneously increasing air turbulence. The omnidirectional pin configuration, which allows air to enter and exit the heat sink in any direction, exposes the heat sink to the fastest possible air speed.”

In an earlier article for EE Times, Dagan also noted that the pin fin geometry “allows for a high degree of customization.” Engineers can make adjustments to the overall height, pin height, base thickness, footprint, pin diameter, and pin density to find an optimal cooling solution for their particular project. [2]

“Pin fins can also be catered for situations where both footprint and height are restricted,” Dagan wrote. “For example, the pin fin technology enables the design of heat sinks with a footprint of half an inch squared and a total height as low as 0.15 in.”

A study conducted by Younghwan Joo and Sung Jin Kim that was published in the International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer indicated that the heat dissipation per mass of optimized pin fin heat sinks was greater than optimized plate-fin heat sinks in most applications. [3]

Pin Fin Heat Sinks

Pin Fin heat sinks on a PCB. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

In a comparison of heat sinks conducted at Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) and published in Qpedia Thermal eMagazine, a 33-mm tall elliptical pin fin heat sink under forced convection had the lowest thermal resistance of the 10 heat sinks that were tested. [4]

The ATS family of pin fin heat sinks, made from extruded aluminum, range in sizes from 10 mm by 10 mm to 60 mm by 60 mm. Heights range from 2-25 mm. Through testing in ATS wind tunnels, the pin fin heat sinks demonstrated thermal resistance as low as 2.5°C/W and added little weight to the board. [5]

How are pin fin heat sinks attached to a board?

Pin fin heat sinks are versatile and can be attached to a variety of component packages, including BGA, QFP, LCC, LGA, CLCC, TSOP, DIP, LQFP, and many others. Because pin fin heat sinks are lightweight, standard thermal tape or epoxy can be used to securely attach them to components.

In addition, pin fin heat sinks work with mechanical attachments such as z-clips and ATS maxiGRIPTM or superGRIPTM, which are two-component attachment systems that provide secure hold without damaging the PCB and only minimal addition to the component footprint.

Pin Fin Heat Sinks

Pin fin heat sinks attached to a PCB with ATS maxiGRIP heat sink attachment system. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

How do pin fin heat sinks provide cost savings?

In his article for EE Times, Dagan explained, “Pin fin technology provides cost-effective heat sink solutions for medium and high-volume applications due to low associated tooling charges and minimal waste of raw materials.” [2]

For example, the ATS family of standard and custom pin fin heat sinks are all available for less than $2.00, with the vast majority of heat sinks available for less than a dollar. This means that engineers can find high-efficiency heat sinks and save money in the budget, which can be put to other design considerations, such as higher-powered fans to increase airflow, better heat sinks attachments, or additional chips and other board components. [5]

This is particularly beneficial for the growing maker market, which is working on new technology or enhancing current technology but generally with far smaller budgets than traditional OEM.

A 2012 article from The Economist, entitled “A Third Industrial Revolution,” discussed the impact of additive manufacturing techniques and how it was now possible to make parts through processes like 3-D printing that are cheaper and faster than traditional methods. According to the article, this will not just affect large manufacturers but also trickles down to a community of makers and smaller companies, what the article labeled “social manufacturing.” [6]

The article added, “As manufacturing goes digital, a third great change is now gathering pace. It will allow things to be made economically in much smaller numbers, more flexibly and with a much lower input of labour, thanks to new materials, completely new processes such as 3D printing, easy-to-use robots and new collaborative manufacturing services available online. The wheel is almost coming full circle, turning away from mass manufacturing and towards much more individualised production.”

Pin Fin Heat Sinks

Pin fin heat sinks provide cost-effective cooling solutions for small manufacturers and the maker market. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

A study, also from 2012, from MAKE magazine and Intel surveyed the maker community to get data about the (self-proclaimed) hobbyists, builders, tinkerers, and engineers. Out of the total respondents, 79 percent said that they worked in hardware and software, with electronics in second place at more than 60 percent. Thirty-four percent of respondents said that they were involved in making products for income and 19 percent of the total said that they paid for projects with outside funding. [7]

Crowdfunding can only take a project so far and for makers trying to earn money from designs, it is crucial to find cost-effective solutions both to ensure a project comes in under budget and to maximize profits from the sale of the design.

Pin fin heat sinks can be added at low-cost and provide the necessary thermal performance to push a design process along. For the maker market and its (at times) limited resources, high-efficiency pin fin heat sinks provide thermal performance on a budget with the versatility to fit into a variety of systems and designs.

[3] Younghwan Joo and Sung Jin Kim, “Comparison of thermal performance between plate-fin and pin-fin heat sinks in natural convection,” International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer, April 2015, 345-356.

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or

Technical Discussion: Designing Heat Sinks for Cooling QSFP Optical Transceivers

During a recent project designing a thermal solution for a customer’s PCB (printed circuit board) layout, Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) Field Application Engineer Peter Konstatilakis also analyzed the thermal properties of a series of SFP (small form-factor pluggable) optical transceivers on the edge of the board.

QSFP Optical Transceivers

ATS engineer Peter Konstatilakis holds the heat sinks that he designed for cooling QSFP optical transceivers. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

From that project came the idea of examining the thermal challenges presented by SFP and QSFP (quad SFP) and designing a heat sink solution that future customers could use to solve potential issues that stem from the increased power requirements of the compact transceivers that are frequently used in the transmission of data.

After conducting an analytical analysis, running computer simulations, and testing the heat sinks in the state-of-the-art ATS labs, Peter demonstrated a new heat sink design and optimized layout sequence that showed 30 percent improvement on QSFP heat sinks currently on the market.

In addition, he showed that having heat sinks with fewer fins upstream and heat sinks with more fins downstream provided a near isothermal relationship between the first and last QSFP, an important consideration for QSFP arrangements.

Peter recently sat down with ATS Vice-President of Marketing and eCommerce Rebecca O’Day and Marketing Communications Specialist Josh Perry to discuss the project, his research, and the successful design of the new QSFP cooling solution.

JP: What prompted the work on QSFP heat sinks? Why did we start looking into this technology?
PK: Optics are pretty big now with all the higher information rates, 400 gigabyte cards, which is 400 gigabytes of throughput and that’s a lot. They need these multiple high-powered SFP or QSFP to do that. So, higher power demands call for ATS expertise in thermal management.

RO: Optics are really expanding. It’s not just routers and things like that, but they’re also used in storage, array networks, video…so this kind of thing could really be able to expand.
PK: Anywhere that you are transferring data, which is basically everywhere – the Cloud, big servers, the internet itself. They’re being used a ton.

JP: Was the impetus for designing QSFP heat sinks something that was prompted by a customer or did we think about the technology and recognize that it needed to be cooled?
PK: We had worked on SFP cooling for a customer first, so that helped us understand the area a bit more. Also, from what we were hearing from customers, QSFP that were being designed had higher throughput, which means higher power. And it is also good to have products that we can market, even if it isn’t for every customer, and show that we can handle the optical transceiver arena.

JP: What was the first step in designing the heat sinks? Did you know a lot about QSFP or did you have to do a lot of research?
PK: There is definitely a lot to think about. You can’t use a TIM (thermal interface material) because the QSFP isn’t fixed in the cage; it can be hot swapped. After a few insertions and removals, it will gunk up the TIM.

JP: Was that something you knew before?
PK: It was something I knew before, but there is also a specification document for this technology written by the SFF (Small Form Factor) Committee, which is a standard controlled document that engineers design to for this form factor and it stated in there not to use a TIM. When we looked at it with the customer, it made sense and when we asked the customer they agreed.

RO: If there is no TIM, how does the interface work? Is it a direct interface? Is it flat enough?
PK: You have to specify a good enough flatness and surface roughness, within cost means, that will still have a low contact resistance. That was one of the challenges as well as understanding the airflow of typical QSFP arrangements because you have four in a row, so you’re going to have preheated air going into the fourth QSFP.

JP: When designing the heat sinks, what were the issues that you needed to consider?
PK: One consideration was getting as much surface area as we can, so that required extending the heat sink off the edge of the cage and we also had fins on the bottom of the heat sink. Usually, you only have fins above the cage but there was some room underneath, about 10 mm depending on what components are around, which provides additional surface area.

We also found that when you extend the surface the spreading resistance becomes an issue as well, so you need to increase the thickness of the base to help spread the heat to the outer extremities of the heat sink. You want the first QSFP and the last QSFP case temperatures’ to be isothermal due to laser performance (an electrical parameter), whereas each individual heat sink should be isothermal to get the most out of all the heat sink surface area (a heat transfer parameter).

‘Cold’ spots insinuate a lack of heat transfer to that location and thus poor use of that surface area. Then it was about the airflow and having the front heat sinks be shorter with fewer fins and the back two to be taller with denser fin arrays.

ATS heat sinks designed specifically for cooling QSFP optical transceivers. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

JP: Was the difference in fin arrays between upstream and downstream heat sinks how you optimized the design to account for the preheated air?
PK: What is really important is to keep each QSFP at the same temperature, within reason, because they all work together. So, if one is a higher temperature than another, the laser performance is going to be affected and it will affect the stack. You want to have them as isothermal as you can; the case temperature from the first QSFP to the last.

We figured when we were going through the design, you could have a shorter heat sink up front with fewer fins to help the airflow pass to the downstream QSFP. The upstream QSFP wouldn’t need as much cooling because they’re getting the fresher air and faster airflow. So, if you relax the front heat sinks and make the ones in the back more aggressive, then you’re going to get better cooling downstream.

What happens is the front heat sinks aren’t as effective. This is fine as long as the upstream QSFP case temperatures are lower than the downstream QSFP. The overall effect is that the upstream QSFP temperatures will be closer to the temperature of the downstream QSFP, keeping the stack as isothermal as possible.

This is where the limit lies. Minimizing the upstream QSFP heat sinks, which in turn minimizes the amount of preheat to the downstream QSFP and allows as much airflow to enter downstream QSFP. At the same time ensuring the upstream QSFP temperatures are equal to or just lower than the downstream QSFP. This keeps the downstream QSFP temperatures at a minimum, while also keeping the transceiver stack close to isothermal.

JP: Were there any unexpected challenges that you had to account for?
PK: There was a challenge in testing and making sure that the thermocouples (which you can see in the picture below) contact the heat sink surface correctly and all of them at the same point. I had to glue it, so it may touch the case of the heat sink or it may not, depending on how the glue set, so I had to put a little thermal grease inside the pocket just to have the thermocouple make good contact with the heater block itself.

The test setup to measure cooling performance of individual heat sinks on a QSFP connector cage when airflow is from one side only. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

The metal piece (heater block) mimics the QSFP and we put a cartridge heater in the middle to heat it up and then we put a groove where the thermocouple is attached as I just explained.

Other than that…it was really just the flatness. It was hard to test and get reliable data between several heat sinks because there is going to be some flatness variation between them. Sometimes there isn’t enough to show a variation, but if I’m seeing different data with a different heat sink on the same heater block then the flatness and surface roughness is affecting it.

RO: On the flatness issue, in theory someone could spend a lot of money and make sure that it was completely flat but there’s a certain point where it has to be flat enough.
PK: Obviously there are diminishing returns after a certain point, so you have to find that line. There are no calculations that explain flatness and surface roughness, so at the end of the day it comes down to testing.

RO: I find it interesting that the testing was a challenge because it appears to us on the outside that this is a standard approach but then you get into it and have to ask how are we going to measure the temperature accurately:
PK: There is always something that comes up which you didn’t think about until you start doing the testing and you have to make a change and modify it to make it work. That is where experience comes in handy. The more testing you do, the more you’ve seen and you can take care of the problem before it arises.

RO: It’s a good example of what we can do at ATS. We don’t have to test with a full, expensive board or the full optical arrangement, instead we can come up with inexpensive (low startup cost) ways to test that will provide quick, accurate data to help the customer get to market.

JP: So, we tested three different arrangements for the heat sinks?
PK: Yeah. There were two different designs with changes in the density of the fins. Based on the CFD (computational fluid dynamics) and in the lab, the best outcome was having the less dense fins in front for the first two heat sinks and having the denser fin arrays downstream. As we expected, more airflow was able to make it to the back heat sinks and were able to cool them more effectively.

QSFP Heat Sinks

This graph shows the difference in temperature between the ATS heat sinks at various air flows. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

We were seeing less than a degree difference, especially at higher airflows, between the first heat sink and the last and that was pretty impressive. That configuration also provided the lowest temperature for the final two QSFP. Those are going to be the limiting factors; they’re going to be the highest temperature components no matter what since they’re receiving preheated air. That’s why it’s important to minimize the preheated air and maximize the airflow downstream by designing shorter, low fin-density heat sinks upstream.

If you put a dense heat sink up front, you’re going to restrict airflow downstream and you’re going to pull more heat out of the component because it is a better heat sink. With this you’re going to dump more heat into the air and send it to the downstream QSFP. So, it is worth keeping some heat in the upstream components, which has a double effect of keeping all of the QSFP temperatures as isothermal as possible. As long as the upstream components aren’t going over the case temperature of the last component, then you’re fine.

RO: It’s almost counter-intuitive. The general thermal design says to pull as much heat away from the component as quickly as possible and dissipate it, but you’re saying it was better to leave some of the heat in place.
PK: For the upstream QSFP, absolutely. There is margin because it is receiving so much fresh air.

That is really because we’re working in a system environment where choices upstream affect the airflow downstream. If it wasn’t a system and you’re looking at a single component, then sure you want to get rid of all the heat. And again, leaving heat in also allows the QSFP components to be as isothermal as possible.

JP: It sounds like it worked the way that you expected going in?
PK: Yeah it did. I’m not going to sit here and pretend it always happens that way but what we thought would happen did happen and we were able to design it analytically before we went into CFD and testing.

JP: Were there certain calculations that you use when working with a system?
PK: We can look at the fan curve. Each heat sink has its own pressure drop and the way you use a fan curve is to analyze the four heat sinks, add the pressure drops together, and then examine the fan curve (the amount of airflow varies with the pressure that the fan sees) with the higher the pressure, the less airflow. So, we’re able to estimate the amount of airflow across the system based on the total pressure drop.

We also use Q=mCpΔT and that way we can determine, based on the amount of power coming from the component, what is the air temperature that is leaving the heat sink. It is a little conservative because we’re saying that all of the heat is going into the next heat sink, which isn’t true because a little is escaping to other locations, but being conservative doesn’t make a difference when comparing designs.

Analyzing the airflow into each heat sink and the temperature into each heat sink lets us know what we have to design for; just because you’re putting more surface area doesn’t mean you have a good solution.

RO: This is a good example of how thermal management is more than just removing the heat, but also analyzing how the heat travels and thinking about it as a system. It’s much more complicated.

JP: How important is for ATS to be able to see potential thermal challenges in new technology, like this, and work through the problem even if it isn’t for a specific design or customer?
PK: It always helps to have more experience. It’s knowledge for the future. We’ve already seen it, we’ve already dealt with it, and we can save time and cost for the customer.

Whenever we run into this issue, we can say we tested that in the lab and explain the solution that we found. We don’t need to do more analysis, but provide the customer with a solution.

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or

Picking the Right Heat Sink Attachment to Avoid Costly PCB Damage

The design of a printed circuit board (PCB) is a complicated process that requires engineers to consider a number of different issues before the board is ready to move beyond prototype and into production. Engineers must think about the physical constraints of a board on component size and placement, the electrical interaction between components, the signal loss through wires and traces, and the thermal management of each component and the system as a whole. [1]

Heat Sink Attachment

ATS maxiFLOW heat sink with superGRIP attachment on a PCB. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

With all of that to consider, it is no wonder that many designs go through several iterations before moving into the production stage. Since the process is already complex and there is a certain amount of trial-and-error in designing a PCB, engineers will look for ways to avoid unnecessary rework that will add significant cost to the project in terms of both time and money.

As noted in a previous article, the type of heat sink attachment technology that an engineer chooses will impact the ease with which a design can be reworked and the amount of damage to the board that will be caused if a change needs to be made.

Push pins, threaded standoffs and z-clips require holes or anchors be drilled into a board, which leaves permanent damage if a component needs to be moved to a new location and could also impact signal routing. There is even the possibility of a short in installation, which also would damage the board. [2]

Non-mechanical attachments such as thermally conductive tape and epoxy are not guaranteed to provide the optimal thermal management because there is “risk of die damage and poor thermal performance due to uneven heat sink placement,” according to a case study from the Altera Corporation. [3]

The case study also said that thermal tape and epoxy have “high risk of damaging the device or PCB” when compared to mechanical attachment technology coupled with thermal interface material (TIM) or phase change material (PCM). In fact, to remove a heat sink attached with epoxy requires an even temperature of 115-120°C.

As the video below shows, removing thermal tape from a heat sink (even one that is not attached to a board) requires a lot of work and tools. If the heat sink is attached to a component, the process to remove it could damage the board or other devices in the vicinity:

A recent chart from NEMI (National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative) indicated that the cost of assembly can be very high per I/O (input/output) on the PCB – considering some of the new BGAs have hundreds of I/O and there are dozens of BGAs on the board, the cost can be prohibitively expensive to put together a board irrespective of the product sector. [4] Obviously, full reworks necessitated by the use of damaging heat sink attachments raise those costs exponentially.

Heat Sink Attachment

Board assembly roadmap from NEMI showing the conversion costs by product sector. [4]

Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) has created a mechanical attachment technology that makes rework easy and allows engineers to make changes to the design without damaging the PCB or the components. superGRIP™ is a two-part attachment system with a plastic frame clip that fastens around the edge of the component and a metal spring clip that fits between the fins of the heat sink and quickly and easily attaches to the frame.

As the video below demonstrates, superGRIP™ can be installed and removed with common household tools and will provide a steady, firm pressure to ensure optimal thermal performance of the heat sink and the reliability of the device:

The advantage of superGRIP™ is not limited to its ease of use and the time and money that will be saved in reworking a PCB design. The pressure strength and security of the superGRIP™ attachment system allows the use of high-performance phase change materials that can improve heat transfer by as much as 20 times over standard thermal tapes. [4]

superGRIP™ comes with Chomerics Thermflow T-766, a foil PCM with a thickness of 0.0035 millimeters that has an operating range of -55°C to 125°C. According to Chomerics, the T-766 and other traditional non-silicone thermal interface pads “completely fill interfacial air gaps and voids. They also displace entrapped air between power dissipating electronic components. Phase-change materials are designed to maximize heat sink performance and improve component reliability.” [5]

Chomerics added, “Upon reaching the required melt temperature, the pad will fully change phase and attain minimum bond-line thickness (MBLT) – less than 0.001 inch or 0.0254 mm, and maximum surface wetting. This results in practically no thermal contact resistance due to a very small thermal resistance path.”

The combination of frame and spring clip provides uniform force over the heat sink and ensures no movement to optimize the impact of the PCM, while not damaging the solder holding the BGA component in place on the board. ATS engineers designed the attachment technology so that the in-plane and normal forces of both the frame and the spring clip hold the heat sink without stressing the solder even through NEBS (Network Equipment Building Systems) shock and vibration testing. [6]

Save time, save money, and avoid unnecessary headaches during the design phase by using ATS superGRIP™ technology.

[2] “How the maxiGRIP™ attachment system impacts component mechanical behavior,” Qpedia Thermal eMagazine], May 2008.


[7] “How the maxiGRIP™ attachment system impacts component mechanical behavior,” Qpedia Thermal eMagazine, May 2008.

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or