Tag 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


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/6063_aluminium_alloy
  2. http://www.aluminumextrusionsprofiles.com/sale-7552970-black-anodized-aluminium-heat-sink-profiles-extruded-aluminum-heatsink-radiators.html
  3. https://www.aec.org/page/basics_basics
  4. https://www.clintonaluminum.com/6061-aluminum-vs-6063-in-extrusion-applications
  5. http://www.wakefield-vette.com/products/natural-convection/thermal-extrusions-overview/CategoryID/15/Default.aspx
  6. https://www.boydcorp.com/thermal/heat-sinks/extruded.html
  7. http://www.richardsonrfpd.com/Pages/Product-End-Category.aspx?productCategory=10188
  8. http://www.getecna.com/products/heat-sinks/
  9. https://www.qats.com/cms/2013/04/11/increased-performance-from-high-aspect-ratio-heat-sinks/
  10. https://www.qats.com/Heat-Sink/Attachments
  11. https://www.powerelectronics.com/thermal-management/heat-sinks-cool-brick-dc-dc-converters

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. To register for Qpedia and to get access to its archives, visit 

Meeting the thermal management requirements of high-performance servers

High-performance servers are devices specially designed to handle large computational loads, a huge amount of communication signals, fast data processing, etc. Due to their task-oriented nature, high-performance servers must have high reliability, interchangeability, compact size and good serviceability.

High-Performance Servers

To achieve high computational speed, high-performance servers generally have dozens of CPUs and memory models. They also have dedicated data process modules and control units to ensure seamless communication between CPUs and parallel data processing ability. To reach higher speeds, the power dissipation of high–performance CPUs has been increasing continuously in the past decade for its use in high-performance servers.

Cooling dozens of kW servers brings a unique challenge for thermal engineers. To deal with the ever-growing high heat flux issue in high-performance servers, it will need the cooperation of electrical, mechanical and system engineers to solve the problem. The job to remove the high heat flux from CPUs to ambient requires chip level, board level and cabinet level solutions.

Wei [1] described Fujitsu’s thermal management advancements in their high-end UNIX server PRIMEPOWER 2500. The server cabinet is shown in Figure 1. Its dimension is 180cm × 107cm × 179cm (H×W×D) and has a maximum power dissipation of 40 kW. The system configuration of PRIMEPOWER 2500 is shown in Figures 2 and 3. It has 16 system boards and 2 input/output (I/O) boards installed vertically on two back-panel boards. The two back-panel boards are interconnected by six (6) crossbars installed horizontally.

Figure 1. PRIMEPOWER 2500 Cabinet [1]
Figure 2. PRIMEPOWER 2500 System Configuration [1]
Figure 3. PRIMEPOWER 2500 System Board Unit [1]

To cool the electrical components inside PRIMEPOWER 2500, 48 200-mm-diameter fans are installed between the system board unit and the power supply unit. They provide forced air cooling for system boards and power supplies. In addition, six 140-mm-diameter fans are installed on one side of crossbar to cool the crossbar boards with a horizontal flow. The flow direction is shown in Figure 3. Each system board is 58 cm wide and 47 cm long.

There are eight CPU processors, 32 Dual In-Line Memory Modules, 15 system controller processors, and associated DC-DC converters on each system board. The combined power dissipation per system board is 1.6 kW at most.

Figure 4. PRIMEPOWER 2500 System Board [1]

To cool the electrical components inside PRIMEPOWER 2500, 48 200-mm-diameter fans are installed between the system board unit and the power supply unit. They provide forced air cooling for system boards and power supplies. In addition, six 140-mm-diameter fans are installed on one side of crossbar to cool the crossbar boards with a horizontal flow. The flow direction is shown in Figure 3. Each system board is 58 cm wide and 47 cm long.

There are eight CPU processors, 32 Dual In-Line Memory Modules, 15 system controller processors, and associated DC-DC converters on each system board. The combined power dissipation per system board is 1.6 kW at most.

Forced air-cooling technology is commonly used in computers, communication cabinets, and embedded systems, due to its simplicity, low cost and easy implementation. For high-performance servers, the increasing power density and constraints of air-cooling capability and air delivery capacity have pushed forced air cooling to its performance limit.

For high power systems like PRIMEPOWER 2500, it needs a combination of good CPU design, optimized board layout, advanced thermal interface material (TIM), high-performance heat sinks, and strong fans to achieve desired cooling.

The general approach to cool the multi-board system is first to identify the hottest power component with the lowest temperature margin. For the high-performance server, it is the CPUs. For multiple CPUs on a system board, generally, the CPU located on downstream of a board or other CPUs has the highest temperature.

So, the thermal resistance requirement for this CPU is:

Where Tj,max is the allowed maximum junction temperature, Ta is the ambient temperature, ∆Ta is the air temperature rise due to preheating before the CPU, and qmax is the maximum CPU power.

The junction-to-air thermal resistance of the CPU is:

Where Rjc is the CPU junction-to-case thermal resistance, RTIM is the thermal resistance of thermal interface materials, and Rhs is the heat sink thermal resistance. To reduce the CPU junction temperature, it is critical to find intuitive ways to minimize Rjc, RTIM, and Rhs, because any reduction in thermal resistance is important in junction temperature reduction.

The CPU package and heat sink module of PRIMEPOWER 2500 are shown in Figure 5. The CPU package has an integrated heat spreader (IHS) attached to the CPU chip. A high-performance TIM is used to bond the CPU chip and IHS together, see Figure 6. The heat sink module is mounted on the IHS with another TIM in between.

Figure 5. PRIMEPOWER 2500 CPU Package and Heat Sink Module [1]
Figure 6. CPU Package [1]

The TIM used in between the CPU chip and the IHS are crucial to the CPU’s operation. It has two key functions: to conduct heat from the chip to the IHS and to reduce the CPU chip stress caused by the mismatch of the coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) between the CPU chip and IHS. Fujitsu developed a TIM made of In-Ag composite solder for the above application. The In-Ag composite has a low melting point and a high thermal conductivity. It is relatively soft, which is good for absorbing thermal stress between the chip and the IHS.

Wei [2] also investigated the impact of thermal conductivity on heat spread performance. He found a diamond composite IHS (k=600 W/(mK)) would result in a lower temperature gradient across the chip and low temperature hot spots, compared with aluminum nitride (k=200 W/(mK)) and copper (k=400 W/(mK)). The simulation results are shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Heat Spreader Material Comparison [2]

In high-performance servers like the PRIMEPOWER 2500, the thermal performance gains by optimizing the TIM and the IHS are small, because they compose only a small portion of the total thermal resistance. Heat sinks dissipate heat from the CPU to air and have an important role in the thermal management of the server. In a server application, the heat sink needs to meet not only the mechanical and thermal requirements, but also the weight and volume restraints. Hence, heat pipes, vapor chambers, and composite materials are widely used in place of high-performance heat sinks.

Koide et al [1] compared the thermal performance and weight of different heat sinks for server application. The results are shown Figure 8. They used the Cu-base/AL-fin heat sink as benchmark. Compared with the Cu-base/AL-fin heat sink, the Cu-base/Cu-fin heat sink is 50% heavier and gains only 8% performance.

If the heat pipe is used in base, the heat sink weight can be reduced by 15% and the thermal performance increases by 10%. If the vapor chamber is embedded in the heat sink base, it reduces the heat sink weight by 20% and increases the heat sink performance by 20%.

Figure 8. Thermal Performance and Weight Comparison of Different Heat Sinks [1]
Figure 9. (a) USIII Heat Sink for Sun Fire 15K Server, (b) USIV Heat Sink for Sun Fire 25K [3]

Sun Microsystems’ high-performance Sun Fire 15K Server uses USIII heat sink to cool its 72 UltraSparc III (USIII) processors. In Sun Fire 25K Server, the CPUs are upgraded to UltraSparc IV (USIV), which has a maximum power of 108 W. To cool the USIV processor, Xu and Follmer [3] designed a new USIV heat sink with copper base/copper fin, see Figure 9. The old USIII heat sink has 17 forged aluminum fins, the USIV heat sink has 33 copper fins. Both heat sinks have the same base dimensions and height.

Figure 10. Thermal Resistance Comparison between USIII Heat Sink and USIV Heat Sink [3]

Figure 10 shows the thermal resistance comparison between the USIII heat sink and the USIV heat sink. The thermal resistance of the USIV heat sink is almost 0.1°C/W lower than that of the USIII heat sink at medium and high flow rates, which is a huge gain in thermal performance. The thermal performance improvement of the USIV heat sink is not without penalty.

Figure 11. Pressure Drop Comparison between USIII Heat Sink and USIV Heat Sink [3]

Figure 11 shows the pressure drop comparison between the USIII heat sink and the USIV heat sink. For the same air flow rate, the pressure drop of the USIV heat sink is higher than that of the USIII heat sink. That means the Sun Fire 25K Server needs stronger fans and better flow arrangements to ensure the USIV heat sinks have adequate cooling flow.

The design of the cooling method in high-performance servers follows the same methodology used in the design cooling solution of other electronic devices, but at an elevated scale. The main focus is to identify the hottest components, which in most cases is CPUs. Due to extreme high power of CPUs, memory modules, cheat spreader, TIM, and heat sinks to achieve desired cooling in the server. The goal of thermal management is to find cost-effective ways to maintain the junction temperature of the CPU lower than specifications and ensure the continuous operation of the server. Wei [1] has proved a 40 kW server can be cooled by forced air cooling.

However, it requires highly integrated design and a huge amount of air flow that the 54 fans inside PRIMEPOWER 2500 can generate. In the near future, it would be very difficult for a forced air-cooling method to cool cabinets with more than 60 kW power. It would require bigger fan trays to deliver huge amounts of air flow and large size heat sinks to transfer heat from the CPUs to air, which makes it impossible to design a reliable, compact and cost-effective cooling system for the server.

We have to find alternative ways to deal with this problem, Other cooling methods, such as air impinging jets, liquid cooling and refrigeration cooling systems, have the potential to dissipate more heat. But it will require intuitive packaging to integrate them into the server system.


  1. Wen, J., Thermal Management of Fujitsu’s High-performance Servers, source: http://www.fujitsu.com/downloads/MAG/vol43-1/paper14.pdf.
  2. Koide, M.; Fukuzono, K.; Yoshimura, H.; Sato, T.; Abe, K.; Fujisaki, H.; High-Performance Flip-Chip BGA Technology Based on Thin-Core and Coreless Package Substrates, Proceedings of 56th ECTC, San Diego, CA, USA, 2006, pp.1869-1873.
  3. Xu, G; Follmer, L.; Thermal Solution Development for High-end System, Proceedings of 21st IEEE SEMI-THERM Symposium, San Jose, CA, USA, 2005, pp. 109-115.

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.

Are More Efficient Heat Sinks Really Costlier?

The question arises, why pay more for a higher-efficient heat sink that is also smaller and lighter in weight, especially in cases whereby a simple, larger but heavier cast or extruded heat sink can also do the job? In most cases, the single piece part price is the main driver as to why engineers and purchasers stay with lesser effective solutions. This is generally because they believe that they are saving money for the company in the long-run.

But, is this really true?

It is very easy to compare the price of two single heat sinks, a highly efficient one versus a standard extruded type with the same thermal performance. But such a simplistic comparison does not take into account the flow performance, effect on neighboring and downstream components, weight, volume usage, etc.

More Efficient Heat Sinks

(Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

What makes a heat sink an efficient heat sink you may wonder? Such a heat sink is optimized for both flow and heat transfer and, hence, makes much better use of the volume available for cooling and the existing cooling air. The geometry of the heat sink is optimized by using thin fins and a special design to lower the air resistance, resulting in the highest possible velocity in the fin field, while minimizing the effect of bypass flow. Because of this, it also has a lesser intrusive effect to the flow, which has a positive effect on the neighboring and downstream flows. This produces lower pressure drops over the board and through the system. The result of a comparison test, presented by Lasance C.J.M. and Eggink H.J., demonstrates this. [1]

The shape and the number of fins create the available surface area. The more surface area in contact with cooling air, the more energy can be dumped into the air and, therefore, the lower the heat sink temperature. Most important, the component temperature will also be lower. Of course, this is only valid if the temperature of cooling air going through the fin field is still lower than the fin temperature; otherwise, no net heat transfer from the heat sink to the air will occur. As has been shown in the literature, there exists an optimum correspondence between the number of fins and the overall cooling effect of these fins.

To arrive at a better comparison, let us look to other related effects which will result in a system price increase due to the chosen cooling solution:

  1. Effect on the flow
  2. Heat sink weight
  3. Heat sink attachment
  4. Mechanical adjustments required to handle the weight on both a board and system level, and to fulfill mechanical requirements for shock and vibration
  5. Raw material usage to manufacture the cooling solution
  6. Required fan performance
  7. Product reliability
  8. Transportation cost
  9. End of life cost

Figure 1 shows a picture of a flow visualization test through a pin fin and the DUT. Compare the amount of flow entering the pin fin and the DUT, which in this case is a maxiFLOW™ heat sink. Most of the water “hitting” the pin fin is bypassing it because of the high air resistance of the fin field. Look at the flow that is left over downstream of the pin fin, which is lower than the upstream flow. Imagine what will happen if we put multiple pin fins in a row downstream of each other because we have to cool multiple devices in a row.

Fig. 1- Flow Test on Both a Pin-Fin (Left) and DUT (Right) in a Water Tunnel. The flow is from top to bottom. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

The first pin fin will have sufficient cooling but, the further we go downstream, the less effective the heat sink becomes. Limited air will be available for cooling, because most of the air is bypassing the heat sinks. What is the first reaction without knowing anything about the flow structure? We need a larger heat sink downstream to get the same cooling effect; or maybe we need to consider a more powerful fan system to drive more air through the system. However, if we would have started from a system level point of view instead of concentrating on a single heat sink, we would have studied the flow field and the interaction between the heat sink and the flow more closely, and we could have arrived at a better solution.

For example, in many cases the total number of heat sinks can be reduced, because other components are better cooled and probably do not require additional cooling.

Standard extruded heat sink profiles and cast heat sinks normally have a thick base and thick fins and are made of lesser thermally conductive aluminum alloys. The lower conductivity is a result of the additives that are included, to make the manufacturing of the product easier. The base and the fins tend to be thicker, because it is more difficult to manufacture thin and tall fins. Especially for natural convection, the optimum heat sink from a thermal point of view can easily be a factor of ten thinner than what is offered. The main design driver for these types of heat sink is the ease of manufacturing and not the overall thermal performance. The end result is a more voluminous and heavier heat sink that makes bad use of the available volume and has a negative effect on the flow.

To have a stable mechanical design, a stronger mechanical attachment to the component/board is required to handle the weight of standard heat sinks, as compared to high performance ones. An efficient light weight heat sink can still be attached by taping, glue, and other attachment methods, which use the component itself as an anchor.

Counting the weight of a standard heat sink and its attachment mechanism together, the overall product weight will be quite higher than for a design based on more efficient cooling solutions.

The same is valid for those LED designs that use the housing as a heat sink. The housing often is made by extrusion or casting processes, which limit the freedom of design. They are generally made of zinc aluminum (Zamac) with a thermal conductivity around 115 W/mK; whereas aluminum used for molding is between 100-150 W/mK; brass annealed is around 60 W/mK; aluminum alloy AL 6063 has a thermal conductivity of 201 W/mK and aluminum alloy AL 1050A reaches 229 W/mK.

Heat spreading is an important factor in most LED applications, and drives the thermal design of LED cooling. If analysis shows heat spreading is important, the consequence is that for lower conductivity materials, the only option is to either increase the base thickness or embed heat pipes or vapor chambers, adding to cost and weight.

LED Thermal Solution

Ephesus LED lighting solutions, with ATS thermal management design, was used in the recent Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Field in Minneapolis.

Forged heat sinks are made of high conductivity aluminum, but the manufacturing method itself is very limited in design freedom. So, in general, to get a better performance, a larger heat sink is required. For natural convection, the use of thermally conductive plastic could be of interest because of its lower weight and greater design freedom. Plastics enhanced with carbon fibers could also be used but require special attention because of their non-orthogonal conduction behavior. Other options are designs that are a combination of highly efficient heat sinks and heat pipes, to either improve heat spreading when the heat sink is much larger than the source, or to transport the heat from the source to a remote heat sink.

Apart from the attachment of the heat sink to one or more component, the overall weight of the board, including the cooling solutions, affects the overall mechanical design. Additional mechanical features are needed to make the product mechanically stable and these features will add cost and weight and further limit the design freedom.

As discussed before, a more voluminous heat sink solution requires more raw material. The initial manufacturing process of aluminum, however, is energy intensive, something we would like to decrease in a world where reduction of energy consumption is key. Fortunately, it can be recycled without the loss of its properties and the recycling process uses only a fraction of the energy in the initial manufacturing process. Finally, there are manufacturing techniques such as bonding, folding and skiving, that do not suffer from these sustainability issues.

Furthermore, a lesser efficient heat sink such as a pin fin or standard extruded type of heat sink, will lead to higher air resistance and lesser optimized flow over the components/ board and through the system. To overcome the higher air resistance and allow for more flow to compensate for the reduced airflow, a more powerful fan or more fans are required. A more powerful fan can mean either a larger fan type or permitting the current fan to run at a higher rotational speed. However, doubling the fan speed means increasing the input power to the fan by a factor of 8. As a result, more heat is dissipated in the system, the power supply has a higher current usage and more power is dissipated in the fan itself. This will lead to a higher fan temperature, thus reducing its lifetime. On top of this, a higher fan speed and more flow will result in higher noise levels.

Optimizing your thermal design by optimizing around the heat sink could in some cases avoid the use of a fan at all, making up for the extra costs of a more sophisticated heat sink. The use of more efficient cooling solutions will lead to a more optimized overall thermal design of the system, influencing directly the thermally and thermo-mechanically related reliability issues of the overall system. The transportation cost of the cooling solution to the manufacturer of the system also has a price. This price is based on shipped volume and weight. Efficient cooling solutions are lower in volume and lower in weight, so will yield a reduction in transportation costs. The weight factor is also applicable for the final product, as a product equipped with lesser weight cooling solutions will be cheaper to transport.

Apart from transport issues, a human effect is applicable: take, for instance, an LED-based streetlamp. Lifting a 30 kg lamp and installing it on a pole, versus lifting a 20 kg lamp, speaks for itself. Additionally, the pole needs to be designed in such a way that it can handle the weight of the lamp, potentially reducing the costs of a lesser weight lamp. Every product has a certain economic and technical lifetime and will be recycled afterwards. The cooling solution need to be recycled too. The heat sink, lamp enclosure – in most cases made of aluminium – can be recycled in a cost and energy effective way; but the lesser mass we recycle, the better.

In summary, the conclusion must be that it pays off to focus on the costs of the total system, and not only on the costs of the individual parts. In times long gone by, it was standard practice that project leaders got bonuses for buying parts as cheap as possible. Needless to say, such an attitude cannot survive in a world where end-users buy total systems, not a collection of parts. However, in the case of heat sinks, we still notice a sub-optimal purchasing policy, often based on lack of knowledge and outdated protocols.

1- Lasance, C.J.M., Eggink, H.J., “A Method to Rank Heat Sinks in Practice: The Heat Sink Performance Tester,” Proc. 21st SEMITHERM, pp. 141-145, San Jose, CA.

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 http://www.qats.com/Qpedia-Thermal-eMagazine.)

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 http://www.electronics-cooling.com/2004/05/simple-formulas-for-estimating-thermal-spreading-resistance

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.

What is the Thermal Impact of Imperfections in Phase-Change Material

Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) engineers have received several questions from customers about the phase-change material that comes standard on the base of all ATS heat sinks. Engineers have asked whether imperfections on the surface of the grey foil that protects the phase-change material, such as dents or wrinkles, have a significant impact on the thermal interface material’s thermal performance. Do these imperfections have any impact at all? Should the liner be removed?

ATS uses Parker Chomerics Thermflow™ T766 thermal interface material (TIM), which comes with a thin, protective layer of metal foil that should not be removed when placing the heat sink on the device it is intended to cool.

Phase-Change Materials

ATS heat sinks come with Chomerics T766 phase-change material standard. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

When pressure is applied, the phase-change material (and the metal foil) conform to both surfaces, completely removing air gaps or voids to maximize heat sink performance. The phase-change material will “attain minimum bond-line thickness” and “maximum surface wetting,” according to information from Chomerics, to limit the thermal resistance path and ensure almost no thermal contact resistance between the device being cooled and the heat sink. For the T766, the phase-change temperature is listed as 55°C. The liner should remain in place when placing heat sink on the device it is intended to cool (see the video below).[1]

Should engineers be concerned about the appearance of the metal foil lining? Do the dents or wrinkles in the lining impact the performance of the phase-change material and potentially impact the efficiency of the heat sink?

To reassure engineers that the appearance of the metal foil would have a negligible impact on the thermal performance of the TIM, the Chomerics Research and Development Department released the results of tests that the company performed on the T766 conformable metal foil. [2] Chomerics studied the impact on thermal impedance when the foil was wrinkled, dented, and even folded.

Researchers tested materials that were not wrinkled, lightly wrinkled, moderately wrinkled, and severely wrinkled under different pressures (20 psi, 50 psi, and 100 psi). The results (shown below) demonstrated that even when wrinkled “to a far greater extent than would be expected in actual handling” thermal impedance never increased more than 0.02°C-in22/W. The report explained, “For 50 W of power, through one square inch of material, that’s only 1.0°C change!”

The dent test was created using a wooden tongue depressor and included a sample with five dents per square inch and a second with 15 per square inch. As was demonstrated in the wrinkle study, the dents smoothed out during the testing process and showed a minimal impact on thermal impedance. “Once again, the thermal impedance did not increase by more than 0.01°C-in2/W. For 50 W of power, through one square inch of material, that’s only 0.5°C change! The metal foil carrier is so conformable that the dents were almost unidentifiable after testing with 100 psi of pressure.”

The final test was performed on T766 that was folded. One sample was folded under on one edge and the second was folded to overlap down the center. The results indicated that small folds of up to 5% of the pad’s area does not significantly impact thermal impedance. A large fold, which tripled the thickness of the foil in the center of the sample, had a significant impact on the thermal impedance of the material.

The report concluded, “T766 will perform extremely well even when the pad is wrinkled or folded, or the foil is scratched or dented. The high conformability of the metal foil carrier will allow it to smooth out and erase almost any imperfection.”

1. https://www.parker.com/literature/Chomerics/Parker%20Chomerics%20

2. http://www.parker.com/parkerimages/Parker.com/Divisions-2011/Chomerics%20Division/SupportAssets/Parker%20Chomerics%20THERMFLOW

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.