Tag Archives: heat sinks

In the ATS Labs – Where Thermal Solutions Advance to Meet Industry Demands

Thermal management innovations need to match the rapid pace at which the electronics industry is advancing. As consumers demand new and more powerful devices or greater amounts of information at faster speeds, cooling solutions of the past will not be enough. Today’s cooling solutions must be smaller, lighter, and offer higher performance, but also need to be cost-effective, meet demanding project specifications, and be reliable for many years.

Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) understands the importance of creating cutting-edge thermal solutions for its customers and has geared its thermal design capability and its research and development to match the innovations taking place in electronics design.

ATS Labs

An ATS engineer assembles a rig for testing cold plates in one of ATS’ six state-of-the-art labs. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

To meet the need for innovative solutions, ATS engineers are hard at work in the company’s six state-of-the-art laboratories at the ATS headquarters, located in Norwood, Mass. (south of Boston). Thermal issues of all kinds are recognized, broken down, and resolved and cooling solutions are designed, simulated, prototyped, and rigorously tested in these research-grade facilities.

When someone thinks of a research lab, the initial picture is scientists in white coats working for major corporations, such as IBM, Microsoft, or Google, but the development of new ideas is an essential tool for any company in the technology field. Working with empirical tests in a lab environment pushes concepts from the white board or the computer screen to reality. There comes a time when engineers need to produce tangible data to ensure that a design works as planned.

ATS thermal engineers are no different. They use state-of-the-art instruments and software in each of the six labs to conduct a long list of characterization, quality-assurance, and validation tests. In addition to finding custom cooling solutions for customers, ATS engineers produce thermal management products for commercial uses, including a variety of next generation heat sink, heat pipe, vapor chamber, and liquid cooling designs.

ATS Labs

Engineers test ATS instruments using a wind tunnel and sensors in the Characterization Lab. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Among the most common tests performed in the ATS labs are:

• Measurements of air velocity, direction, pressure and temperature;
• Characterization of heat sink designs, fans and cold plates
• Flow visualization of liquid and air flow
• Image visualization characterization using infrared and liquid crystal thermography.

Many of the instruments that these tests are performed on were designed and fabricated by ATS. That includes open-loop, closed-loop, and bench-top wind tunnels; the award-winning iQ-200™, which measures air temperature, velocity, and pressure with one instrument; and the thermVIEW™ liquid crystal thermography system. Engineers also use specially-designed sensors, such as the ATS Candlestick Sensor, to get the most accurate analysis possible.

Smoke flow visualization tests run in ATS wind tunnels demonstrate how air flows through a system. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Heat pipes and vapor chambers are increasingly common cooling solutions, particularly for mobile devices and other consumer electronics, and ATS engineers are working to expand the company’s offerings for these solutions and to develop next generation technology that optimizes the thermal performance of these products. This research involves advanced materials, new fabrication methods, performance testing, and innovative designs that are ready for mass production.

ATS engineer Vineet Barot sets up a thermal imaging camera for temperature mapping studies in the lab. (Advanced Thermal Solutions. Inc.)

ATS has also developed products to meet the growing demand across the electronics industry for liquid cooling systems. From new designs for recirculating and immersion chillers to multi-channel cold plates to tube-to-fin heat exchangers, ATS is continuing to expand its line of liquid cooling solutions to maximize the transfer of heat from liquid to air and researching new manufacturing methods, advanced materials, and other methods of enhancing the technology.

As liquid cooling technology has grown, ATS has met this demand with new instruments and lab capabilities, such as the iFLOW-200™, which measures a cold plate’s thermal and hydraulic characteristics, and full liquid loops to test ATS products under real-world conditions.

ATS Labs

ATS engineer Reza Azizian (right) works with intern Vladislav Blyakhman on a liquid cooling loop in the lab. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

The labs at ATS are up to even the toughest electronics cooling challenges that the company’s global customers present. Thanks to its extensive lab facilities, ATS has provided thousands of satisfied customers with the state-of-the-art thermal solutions that they demand.

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit www.qats.com/consulting or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.

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.

[1] http://www.newelectronics.co.uk/electronics-technology/pin-fin-heat-sinks-point-the-way-to-more-efficient-cooling/18641/
[2] http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1204099
[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.
[4] https://www.qats.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/HowAirVelocityAffects_Qpedia08.pdf
[5] https://www.qats.com/News-Room/Press-Releases-Content/1184.aspx
[6] http://www.economist.com/node/21552901
[7] http://www.nyu.edu/social-entrepreneurship/speaker_series/pdf/Maker%20Market%20Study%20FINAL.pdf

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit www.qats.com or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.

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 https://www.qats.com/consulting or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.

Industry Developments: Cooling QSFP Optical Transceivers

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

Rapid advancements in fiber optic technology have increased transfer rates from 10GbE to 40/100GbE within data centers. With the emergence of 100GbE technologies, the creation of data center network architectures free from bandwidth constraints has been made possible. The major enabler of this performance increase is the QSFP optical transceiver.

QSFP is the Quad (4-channel) Small Form-Factor Pluggable optical transceiver standard. A QSFP transceiver interfaces a network device, e.g. switch, router, media converter, to a fiber optic or copper cable connection as part of a Fast Ethernet LAN.

The QSFP design became an industry standard via the Small Form Factor Committee in 2009. Since then, the format has steadily evolved to enable higher data rates. Today, the QSFP MSA (multi-source agreement) specification supports Ethernet, Fibre Channel (FC), InfiniBand and SONET/SDH standards with different data rate options.


Fig. 1. The Small QSFP Form Factor Allows More Connectors and Bandwidth than Other Fiber Optic Transceiver Formats. Note the Cooling Fins on Each Receiver Device. [1]

Thermal Issues

The small QSFP form factor has significantly increased the number of ports per package. The increased density of transceivers can lead to heat issues. The optical modules can get hot due to their use of lasers to transmit data. Even though the popular QSFP28 provides lower power dissipation than earlier transceivers – abut 3.5W, the QSFP28 factor has also allowed a significant increase in port density.

Newer microQSFPs can dissipate even more heat. microQSFP interconnects fit more ports (up to 72) on a standard line card, saving significant design space.

Fig 2. Air Gap Locations Shown in Thermal Specifications Feature on QSFP. Top: QSFP at the Inside Edge of a Cage, Bottom: QSFP Section Showing Typical Internal Layout. [2]

The performance and longevity of the transceiver lasers depend on the ambient temperature they operate in and the thermal characteristics of the packaging of these devices. The typical thermal management approach combines heat dissipating fins, e.g. heat sinks, and directed airflow.

Fig 3. Test set-up of different heat sink designs on QSFP28 connector cages. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Recently, Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) tested a variety of pin and fin-style heat sinks for their comparative cooling performance on a standard QSFP connector cage. For this setup, an even amount of heat was provided to each connector site via a heater block. Individual thermocouples measured the heat flux resulting with the different heat sink types.

A main goal of this test was how each of four heat sinks would perform while relying on airflow incoming from just one side. By the time it reached the fourth heat sink would the airflow provide enough conduction for adequate cooling? An image from this series of tests is below in Figure 4.

Fig. 4. 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 tests results showed that the denser the heat sink pins or fins on the sink closest to the incoming air, the hotter the farthest away QSFP will be. Thus, the best solution used heat sinks whose pin/fin layouts were optimized to work in the actual airflow reaching them.

This meant more open layouts closer to the air source, allowing more air to reach denser pin/fin sinks farther from the air. The non-homogeneous heat sinks allowed for a low, uniform temperature across the QSFP for the most effective function of the QSFPs’ lasers.


Cooling solutions are different between QSFP28 designs and microQSFP installations. QSFP28 transceiver cooling is typically provided at multiple connector sites. microQSFP modules, e.g. from TE Connectivity, have an integrated heat sink in the individual optical module. Used with connection cages that are optimized for airflow, their heat is controlled in high density applications.

Fig. 5. Integrated Module Thermal Solution (Fins) on microQSFPs Provides Better Thermal Performance and Uses Less Energy for Air Cooling. [3]

Fig. 6. A Video Demo from TE Connectivity Shows 72 Ports of microQSFP Transceivers Units Running at 5W Each and All Kept Under 55°C Temperature Using 82 CFM Airflow. [4]

Finally, another factor affecting cooling performance is surface finish and flatness. Designers can reduce thermal spreading losses by keeping the heat sources close to the thermal interface area and by increasing the thermal conductivity of the case materials.

For QSFP, the size of the cage hole for heat sink contact given in the multi-source agreement (MSA) can be increased giving a reduction in the thermal interface resistance and therefore module temperature.

1. FMAD IO, http://fmad.io/images/blog/20160612-100g-connectors.png
2. https://arkansashq.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/pluggable-optics-modules-thermal-specifications-part-2/
3. microQSFP, http://www.microqsfp.com/
4. TE Connectivity, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_qNj-yAKz4

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit www.qats.com or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.

Choosing the Right Heat Sink Attachment for Densely Populated PCB

In 1965, Fairchild Semiconductor Director of R&D and soon to be Intel co-founder Gordon Moore wrote “The Future of Integrated Electronics,” which was intended as an internal paper to define the most cost-effective number of components per integrated circuit. As he looked ahead to the next decade, Moore argued that the number of components per chip would double every year.

The paper was edited and published by Electronics in 1965 as “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits”. Ten years later, Moore, then with Intel, spoke at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting and showed that his initial prediction was correct and estimated that the rate of increase would slow to “a doubling every two years, rather than one.”

Heat Sink Attachment

superGRIP heat sink attachment technology offer minimal addition to component footprint on densely packed PCB. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

This prediction has now become widely known as Moore’s law. It has become a tenet of the electronics community and continues to propel the industry forward at a time when the number of transistors on a chip (which was around 65,000 in 1975) now exceeds one billion. [1]

These high-powered components are common on printed circuit boards (PCB) in every day electronics from mobile devices to computers to automobiles. Recently, the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) announced that it will spend $200 million on the Electronics Resurgence Initiative to seek new materials and manufacturing techniques in expectation that Moore’s law will come to a natural end. [2]

Not only are the components themselves getting higher-powered, but increased demand for functionality in ever-smaller packages has meant that these components are increasingly being squeezed into tighter areas. A 2012 article on Tech Design Forums, based on information from Mentor Graphics’ Technology Leadership Awards, indicated that while PCB size had been “relatively constant,” the “average number of components has quadrupled in 15 years.” [3]

As the forum noted, “Despite attempts by IC (integrated circuit) suppliers to cut power dissipation, as IC speeds and densities increase so does the heat they dissipate. And putting these ICs into smaller and smaller form factors compounds the problem. This causes significant thermal management challenges that must be met at the IC package, PCB and system levels.”

OCM Manufacturing, a low- to mid-volume manufacturer of electronics products, offered a chart that detailed standard spacing of components on a PCB, but also added, “With that said, there are no hard and fast rules for component spacing. Tightly packed components may have very good yield and problems may arise only during rework.” [4]

Heat Sink Attachment

Match each component in the rows with whatever it’s adjacent to in the columns to see the preferred and minimum spacing between those two components, in millimeters. [4] (OCM Manufacturing)

Of course, all of that power will inevitably lead to increased heat across the system. Coupled with the decrease in space between components, which puts constraints on the amount of airflow across a component and leads to heat from one chip being passed on to the next, thermal management is a critical aspect of PCB design to an even greater extent than before. [5]

Heat sinks remain the most cost-effective method for cooling chips. The benefits of heat sinks, the thermal impact of different materials, and the development of new fin geometries are all discussed in depth elsewhere on this blog, but this article asks, “What is the best way to attach heat sinks, especially in a component-dense environment?”

As Dr. Kaveh Azar, founder and CEO of Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS), wrote in ECN Magazine, “An engineer starting the process of thermal management must first determine the cooling needed and then consider the mechanical aspects of attaching the heat sink.” [6]

He added, “The thermal consideration is foremost on our decision tree. Once we have resolved the cooling issue, including the heat sink size and the type of thermal interface material (TIM) needed, we need to ask the question of how this heat sink will be attached to the device or the PCB.”

There are several options for design engineers to consider, but each comes with its own set of challenges. Thermal tape and thermal epoxies [7] would obviously add nothing to the existing component footprint, but tape has proven better for low-powered chips and epoxies require time to cure and are essentially permanent, making potential rework more time-consuming and costly.

Push pins, threaded standoffs and z-clips are mechanical attachment technologies that are common in the electronics industry but all require expanded footprints as well as holes or anchors in the PCB, which may not be available on high-density boards. Holes and anchors also make signal routing more difficult in the design phase and there is a possibility of a standoff or solder anchor causing a short during installation that could result in damage to the board. [8]

To meet this need, ATS developed superGRIP™. The two-part attachment system features a plastic frame clip that fastens securely around the perimeter of the component and a metal spring clip that slips through the fins of a heat sink and locks to the frame clip on both ends. [9]

The system is designed to need minimal space around the component. [10] The frame clip is made of a plastic resin that allows it to be very thin but also very strong, which was demonstrated during shock and vibration testing. The interior frame profile locks securely around the bottom edge and sides of the component package. The horseshoe tabs secure the clip to ensure the proper pressure on the heat sink.

The following chart shows the superGRIP™ clearance guidelines, although custom options are available and may be needed depending on the design:


The required board keep-out region for ATS superGRIP heat sink attachment technology. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

superGRIP™ was also designed and tested to ensure maximum airflow through the heat sink. In a tightly-packed system where airflow is at a premium, superGRIP™ provides the necessary attachment security with only minimal impact on the flow. In addition, the plastic used in the frame clip stays cool in high-heat environments, rather than adding fuel to a potentially combustible situation.


CFD simulations with ATS superGRIP attachment demonstrating its minimal impact on airflow across a system. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Unlike other attachment technologies, superGRIP™ also requires no separate tooling and can be installed or released with a common tool such as a screwdriver. [11] This makes any potential rework easier. It is important to note the direction of the airflow when placing a heat sink, so it must also be considered when placing the frame clip as well.

[1] http://www.computerhistory.org/siliconengine/moores-law-predicts-the-future-of-integrated-circuits/
[2] http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1331974 and https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2017-06-01
[3] http://www.techdesignforums.com/practice/technique/overcoming-increasing-pcb-complexity-with-automation/
[4] http://ocmmanufacturing.com/resources/resource/dfm-tip-spacing-components-on-a-pcb/
[5] http://www.electronicdesign.com/embedded/engineer-s-guide-high-quality-pcb-design
[6] https://www.ecnmag.com/article/2011/09/know-your-choices-mounting-heat-sinks-hot-components
[7] https://www.masterbond.com/industries/heat-sink-attachment
[8] “How the maxiGRIP™ attachment system impacts component mechanical behavior,” Qpedia Thermal eMagazine, May 2008.
[9] https://www.qats.com/cpanel/UploadedPdf/ATS_superGRIP_Launch_Release_FINAL_with_Photo_0427092.pdf
[10] https://www.qats.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/superGRIP-Clearance-Guidelines1.pdf
[11] https://www.qats.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/superGRIP-Installation-Guidelines.pdf

For more information about Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) thermal management consulting and design services, visit www.qats.com or contact ATS at 781.769.2800 or ats-hq@qats.com.