Tag Archives: thermal management

How Do Heat Sink Materials Impact Performance

By Michael Haskell, Thermal Engineer
and Norman Quesnel, Senior Member of Marketing Staff
Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.

(This article was featured in an issue of Qpedia Thermal e-Magazine, an online publication produced by Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) 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 Sink Materials

This article examines the difference in thermal performance between copper, aluminum, and graphite foam heat sinks. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)


As thermal solutions for today’s electronics grow more challenging, demand rises for novel cooling ideas or materials. As a result, the proven methods of analytical calculations, modeling and laboratory testing are sometimes bypassed for a quick “cure-all” solution. Evolutionary progress is required of the thermal industry, of course. But, despite the urgency to introduce new ideas and materials, thorough testing should be performed in determining the thermal performance of a solution before it is implemented.

This article addresses the impact of material choice on heat sink performance. First, an evaluation of different materials is made in a laboratory setting, using mechanical samples and a research quality wind tunnel. This testing compares a constant heat sink geometry made from copper, aluminum, and graphite foam. Next, an application-specific heat sink study is presented using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software.

In this study, a heat sink was designed in 3D CAD to cool a dual core host processor. The performance of both an aluminum and copper design was then evaluated using CFD.

Laboratory Tests of Copper, Aluminum, and Graphite Foam

The stated thermal properties of engineered graphite foams have enhanced their consideration as heat sink materials. Yet, the literature is void of a true comparison of these materials with copper and aluminum. To evaluate graphite foam as a viable material for heat sinks, a series of tests were conducted to compare the thermal performance of geometrically identical heat sinks made of copper, aluminum, and graphite foam respectively.

Testing was conducted in a research quality laboratory wind tunnel where the unducted air flow was consistent with typical applications.

(The results for ducted and jet impingement flows, though similar to the unducted case, will be presented in a future article along with a secondary graphite foam material.)

Test Procedure

Earlier foam experiments by Coursey et al. [1] used solder brazing to affix a foam heat sink to a heated component. The solder method reduced the problematic interfacial resistance when using foams, due to their porous nature. Directly bonding the heat sink to a component has two potential drawbacks. First, the high temperatures common in brazing could damage the electrical component itself.

The other issue concerns the complicated replacement or rework of the component. Due to the low tensile strength of foam (Table 1) a greater potential for heat sink damage occurs than with aluminum or copper [2]. If the heat sink is damaged or the attached component needs to be serviced, direct bonding increases the cost of rework.

Table 1. Thermal and Mechanical Properties of the Heat Sink Materials. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

To avoid these problems, the foam heat sink can be soldered to an aluminum or copper carrier plate. This foam-and-plate assembly can then be mounted to a component in a standard fashion. The carrier plate allows sufficient pressure to be applied to the interface material, ensuring low contact resistance.

In this study, the heat sinks were clamped directly to the test component without a carrier plate as a baseline for all three materials. Shin-Etsu X23 thermal grease was used as an interface material to fill the porous surface of the foam and reduce interfacial resistance. Five J-type thermocouples were placed in the following locations: upstream of the heat sink to record ambient air temperatures, in the heater block, in the center of the heat sink base, at the edge of the heat sink base, and in the tip of the outermost fin.

Heat Sink Material

Figure 1. Test Heat Sink Drawing. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

A thin film heater was set at 10 watts during all testing, and the heat source area was 25 mm x 25 mm, or one quarter of the overall sink base area, as shown in Figure 1. Both cardboard and FR-4 board were used to insulate the bottom of the heater, The estimated value of Ψjb is 62.5°C/W. Throughout testing, the value of Ψjb was 36–92 times greater than that of Ψja.


As expected, the traditional copper and aluminum heat sinks performed similarly. The main difference was due to the higher thermal conductivity of copper, which reduced spreading resistance. During slow velocity flow conditions, the lower heat transfer rate means that convection thermal resistance makes up a large portion of the overall Θja.

Heat Sink Materials

Table 2. Test Heat Sink Geometry. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Heat Sink Materials

Figure 2. Experimental Heater and Measurement Setup. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

As flow speed increases, the convection resistance decreases, and the internal heat sink conduction resistance is more of a factor in the overall Θja value. This behavior is evident in the table below, and when comparing the different heat sink materials. The graphite heat sink’s thermal performance was only 12% lower than aluminum at low flow rates. However, the performance difference increased to 25-30% as the flow rate increased (Table 3).

Heat Sink Materials

Table 3. Specific Thermal Test Results. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Due to the lack of a solder joint, the foam heat sink experienced a larger interfacial resistance when compared to the solid heat sinks. This difference can be seen when comparing ΨHEATER-BASE in Table 3. To decouple the effect of interfacial resistance ΨBASE-AIR can be calculated. When ignoring interfacial resistance in this manner foam performs within 1% of aluminum at 1.5 m/s, and within 15% at 3.5 m/s.

Heat Sink Materials

Figure 3. Heat Sink Thermal Resistance as a Function of Velocity. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Graphite foam-derived heat sinks show promise in specific applications, but exhibit several drawbacks in mainstream electronics cooling. Due to the frail nature of graphite foam, unique precautions must be taken during the handling and use of these heat sinks. When coupled to a copper base plate, graphite foam can perform with acceptably small spreading resistances.

However, the foam’s lower thermal conductivity reduces thermal performance at high flow velocities compared to a traditional copper heat sink.

The mechanical attachment needed to ensure acceptable thermal interface performance without soldering or brazing also hinders foam-based heat sinks from being explored in mainstream applications. Despite these challenges, the thermal performance-to-weight ratio of foam is very attractive and well-suited to the aerospace and military industries, where cost and ease of use come second to weight and performance.

Thermal Software Comparison of Aluminum and Copper Heat Sinks

A challenging thermal application was considered. This involved the use of a dual core host processor on a board with limited footprint area for a heat sink of sufficient size. A heat sink with a stepped base was designed to clear onboard components. It provided sufficient surface area to dissipate heat (Figure 4).

Due to the complexity of the heat sink, machining a test sample from each material was not practical. Instead, CFD was used to predict the performance difference between the two materials and determine if the additional cost of copper was warranted.

Heat Sink Materials

Figure 4. Stepped Base maxiFLOW™ Heat Sink (ATS). (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Because of the stepped base and a long heat conduction path, spreading resistance was a major factor in the overall thermal resistance. The effect of copper in place of aluminum due to its higher thermal conductivity (400 and 180 W/m*K respectively) is shown in Table 4. The CFD software predicted a 21% improvement using copper in place of aluminum. More importantly, it reduced the processor case temperature below the required goal of 95°C.

The performance improvement with copper is due to the reduced spreading resistance from the processor die to the heat sink fins. This effect is shown in Figure 5, where the base temperatures of both heat sinks are obtained from the CFD analysis and plotted together. The aluminum heat sink shows a hotter center base temperature and a more pronounced drop off in temperature along the outer fins. The copper heat sink spreads the heat to all fins in a more even fashion, increasing the overall efficiency of the design. This temperature distribution can be seen in Figures 6 and 7, which were created using CFDesign software.

Heat Sink Materials

Figure 5. Effect of Heat Sink Material on Temperature Distribution. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Heat Sink Materials

Figure 6. Aluminum Stepped Base maxiFLOW™ Heat Sink Simulation. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

Heat Sink Materials

Figure 7. Copper Stepped Base maxiFLOW™ Heat Sink Simulation. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)


Design engineers have many materials at their disposal to meet the challenging thermal needs of modern components. Classic materials such as aluminum and copper are joined by new technologies that bring improvements in cost, weight, or conductivity. The choice between a metallic, foam or plastic heat sink can be difficult because thermal conductivity provides the only available information to predict performance.

The first method for determining material selection is a classic thermodynamics problem: what effect does conductivity have on the overall thermal resistance in my system? Only once this is answered can the benefits of cost, weight, and manufacture be addressed.


1. Coursey, J., Jungho, K., and Boudreaux, P. Performance of Graphite Foam Evaporator for Use in Thermal Management, Journal of Electronics Packaging, June 2005.
2. Klett, J., High Conductivity Graphitic Foams, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2003.

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

Utilizing Fans in Thermal Management of Electronics Systems

Fans in Thermal Management

There are different types of fans that are used in thermal management of electronics with tube axial fans being the most common. (Wikimedia Commons)

The ongoing trend in the electronics industry is for increasingly high-powered components to meet the ever-growing demands of consumers. Coupled with greater component-density in smaller packages, thermal management is more and more of a priority to ensure performance and reliability over the life of an electronics system.

As thermal needs have grown, engineers have sought out different cooling methods to supplement convection cooling. While options such as liquid cooling have grown in popularity in recent years, still one of the most common techniques is to add fans to a system.

Through the years, fan designs have improved. Fan blades have been streamlined to produce great flow rate with less noise and fans have become more power-efficient to meet the desires of customers trying to use less resources and save costs.

While much has changed in the presentation of fans, there are many basic concepts that engineers must consider when deciding how to implement fans in a project.

This is part one of a two-part series on how to select the best fan for a project. Part one will cover the types of fans that can be used. Part two, which can be found at https://www.qats.com/cms/2017/03/10/analysis-of-fan-curves-and-fan-laws-in-thermal-management-electronics, will cover fan laws and analyzing fan curves.


As described by Mike Turner of Comair Rotron in an article for Electronics Cooling Magazine, “All You Need to Know About Fans,” fans are essentially low pressure air pumps that take power from a motor to “output a volumetric flow of air at a given pressure.” He continued, “A propeller converts torque from the motor to increase static pressure across the fan rotor and to increase the kinetic energy of the air particles.”

In a white paper from Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. (ATS) entitled, “Performance Difference Between Fans and Blowers and Their Implementation,” it was added that fans are at their core, dynamic pumps. The article added, that in dynamic pumps “the fluid increases momentum while moving through open passages and then converts its high velocity to a pressure increase by exiting into a diffuser section.”

The biggest difference between a fan and a blower is the direction in which the air is delivered. Fans push air in a direction that is parallel to the fan blade axis, while blowers move air perpendicular to the blower axis. Turner noted that fans “can be designed to deliver a high flow rate, but tend to work against low pressure” and blowers move air at a “relatively low flow rate, but against high pressure.”

The three types of fans are centrifugal, propeller, tube axial, and vane axial:

• In centrifugal fans, the air flows into the housing and turns 90 degrees while accelerating due to centrifugal forces before being flowing out of the fan blades and exiting the housing.
• Propeller fans are the simplest form of a fan with only a motor and propellers and no housing.
• Tube axial fans, according to Turner, are similar to a propeller fan but “also has a venture around the propeller to reduce the vortices.”
• Vane axial fans have vanes trailing behind the propeller to straighten the swirling air as it is accelerated.

The most common fans used in electronics cooling are tube axial fans and there are a number of manufacturers creating options for engineers. A quick search of Digi-Key Electronics, offered options such as Sunon, Orion Fans, Sanyo Denki, NMB Technologies, Delta Electronics, Jameco Electronics, and several more.

Fans in Thermal Management

A fan is added to a heat sink on a PCB in order to increase the air flow and heat dissipation from the board component. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)


When selecting a fan, engineers must consider the specific requirements of the system in which they are working, including factors such as the necessary airflow and the size restrictions of the board or the chassis. These basic factors will allow engineers to search through the many available options to find a fan that fits his or her needs.

In addition, engineers may look towards combining multiple fans in parallel or in a series to increase the flow rate across the components without increasing the size of the package or the diameter of the fan.

Parallel operation means having two or more fans side-by-side. When two fans are working in parallel, then the volume flow rate will be increased, even doubled when the fans are operating at maximum. Turner added. “The best results for parallel fans are achieved in systems with low resistance.”

In a series, the fans are stacked on top of each other and results in increased static pressure. Unlike parallel operations, fans in a series work best in a system with high resistance.

The ATS white paper noted, “In real situations, the fans may interfere with each other. The end results is a lower than expected performance.” Turner warns that in either parallel or series configurations there is a point in the combined performance curve that should be avoided because it creates unstable and unpredictable performance, but analyzing fan performance and fan curves will be covered in more detail in part two of the blog.

Efficiency is a major factor when selecting a fan. As noted in an article from Qpedia Thermal eMagazine, “A large data center contains about 400,000 servers and consumes 250 MW of power. It has been estimated that about 20% of the total power supplied to a high end server is consumed by fans.”

Clearly, finding a fan that can work efficiently with lower power will save a considerable about of resources. The article details several methods for creating efficiency in designing a system that includes fans:

“Fan power consumption is traditionally reduced by controlling the motor speed to produce only the airflow required for adequate cooling, rather than operating continuously at full speed. Significant energy savings can be achieved beyond this technique through fan efficiency increase. Optimizing the motor and electronic driver, increasing fan aerodynamic efficiency through careful redesign, and optimizing fan-system integration are three ways of achieving this.”

Read more about the techniques for achieving efficiency at https://www.qats.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Designing_Efficient_Fans_for_Electronics_Cooling


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

Industry Developments for Cooling Overclocked CPUs

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

(This article will be featured in an upcoming 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. To read other stories from Norman Quesnel, visit https://www.qats.com/cms/?s=norman+quesnel.)

Almost as long as personal computers have been around, users have been making modifications “under the hood” to make them run faster. A large segment of these users are overclockers, who make adjustments to increase the clock speeds (the speed at which processors execute instructions) of their CPUs and GPUs.

Many PC gamers get into overclocking (OC) to make their programs run faster. Gamecrate.com, a gamer site, defines overclocking as the practice of forcing a specific piece of hardware to operate at a speed above and beyond the default manufactured rating. [1]

To overclock a CPU is to set its clock multiplier higher so that the processor speeds up. For example, overclocking an Intel Core i7 CPU means to push its rated clock speed higher than the 2.80 GHz that it runs at “out of the box.” When performed correctly, overclocking can safely boost a CPU’s performance by 20 percent or more. This will let other processes on a computer run faster, too.

Cooling Overclocked CPUs

Fig. 1. An Intel Core i5-469k Processor Can Be Overclocked to Run 0.5-0.9 GHz over Its Base Frequency. Air Cooling is Provided by a Hyper D92 from Cooler Master.[2]

To serve the global overclockers market, some chip makers keep the door open to overclocking by allowing access to their multipliers. They do this with a variety of “unlocked” processors. Intel provides many unlocked versions of their processors, as denoted with a ‘k’ at the end of their model number.

For example, the Skylake Core i7-6700k and Haswell-E Core i7-5820k are made with unlocked clock multipliers. In fact, Intel targets overclockers with marketing campaigns and support services.

Fig. 2. Intel Actively Targets Overclockers with Its Unlocked Processors.[3]

Besides gaming, overclocking can improve performance for applications such as 3-D imaging or high-end video editing. For GPUs, faster speeds will achieve higher frames per second for a smoother, faster video experience. Overclocking can even save money, if a lower cost processor can be overclocked to perform like a higher end CPU.[4]

For many gamers, overclocking enhances their enjoyment by giving more control over their system and breaking the rules set by CPU manufacturers. One overclocker on Gamecrate.com said, “Primarily, I like to do it because it’s fun. On a more practical note it’s a great way to breathe some life into an old build, or to take a new build and supercharge it to the next level.”[1]

Heat Issues from Overclocking

Overclocking a processor typically means increasing voltage as well. Thus, the performance boost from overclocking usually comes with added component heat that needs to be controlled. Basically, the more voltage added to components, the more heat they are going to produce. There are many tutorials on overclocking and most of these resources stress that it’s essential to manage a component’s increased heat.[5]

Programs are available that monitor the temperature of a processor before and after overclocking it. These programs work with the DTS, digital thermal sensors that most processor manufacturers include inside their component packages. One such program is Core Temp, which can be used with both Intel and AMD cores. Some component OEMs also offer their own software to monitor temperatures in their processors.[6]

Fig. 3. The Core Temp Program Can Display Temperatures of Individual Cores in a System.[6]

Typically, an overclocker will benchmark a CPU or other component to measure how hot it runs at 100 percent. Advanced users can manually do the overclocking by changing the CPU ratio, or multiplier, for all cores to the target number. The multiplier works with the core’s BCLK frequency (usually 100) to create the final GHz number.

Tools like the freeware program Prime95 provide stability testing features, like the “Torture Test,” to see how the sped up chip performs at a higher load. These programs work with the system’s BIOS and typically use the motherboard to automatically test a range of overclocked profiles, e.g. from 4.0-4.8 GHz. From here, an overclocker may test increasing voltages, e.g. incrementally adding 0.01 – 0.1 V while monitoring chip stability.

An overclocked component’s final test is whether it remains stable over time. This ongoing stability will mainly be influenced by its excess heat. For many overclocked processors, a robust fan-cooled heat sink in place of the stock fan is essential. For others, only liquid cooling will resolve excess heat issues.

Fan Cooling

The advantage of using air coolers is no worry about leaking, which may lead to component or system damage. With the air cooled heat sinks, the bigger and faster the fan (CFM), the better, and there are a multitude of fan-sink cooling solutions that gaming PCs can accommodate.

In reality, higher performance fan-cooled sinks typically also employ liquid. It is used inside heat pipes that more efficiently convey heat from the processor into the sink’s fan cooled fin field.

Fig. 4. The Top-Rated Hyper 212 EVO CPU Air Cooler from Cooler Master Has Four Heat Pipes Transferring Heat to Aluminum Fins.[7]

Air cooled heat sinks for overclockers cost well under $50 and are available from many sources. They’re often bundled with overclock-ready processors at discounted prices.

A greater issue with air cooling can be the fan noise. A high performance fan must spin very quickly to deal with heavy system workloads. This can create an unpleasant mixture of whirs, purrs and growls. Many of the gaming desktops generate 50-80 decibels of noise at load. Though most fans are quieter, pushing out 25-80 CFM, they are louder than most standard PC processor fans.[8]

Liquid Cooling

Liquid cooling has become more common because of its enhanced thermal performance, which allows higher levels of overclocking. Prices are definitely higher than air-cooled heat sinks, but liquid systems offer enthusiasts a more intricate, quieter, and elegant thermal solution with definite eye-appeal.

From the performance standpoint, liquids (mainly water in these systems) provide better thermal conductivity than air. They can move more thermal energy from a heat source on a volume-to-volume basis.

Fig. 5. The Top-Rated Nepton 280 Liquid CPU Cooler Has a Fast Pump Flow and a Large Radiator Cooled with Dual Fans that Reach 122 CFM Airflow.[9]

A typical liquid cooling system features a water block that fits over the overclocked CPU, a large surface area, a fan-cooled heat exchanger (radiator), a pump, and a series of tubes connecting all elements. One tube carries hot fluid out from the water block, the other returns it once it is cooled by the radiator. Some liquid cooling systems can also be used on multiple processors, e.g. a CPU and a gaming chipset.

While there are more components to a liquid cooling system, there are also major advantages. For one, the water block is usually much smaller and lower-profile than an attached, high-performance air cooler. Also, the tubing set up allows the heat exchanger and pump to be installed in different locations, including outside the PC enclosure. An example is the Sub-Zero Liquid Chilled System from Digital Storm. It unlocks overclocks of Intel’s i7-980X CPU up to 4.6 GHz while idling the processor below 0°C.[10]

Fig. 6. Digital Storm’s Cryo-TEC System Places an Overclocked CPU in Direct Contact with Thermo-electric Cold Plates Dropping Core Temperatures to Below 0°C.[11]

Prices for liquid cooling systems can easily surpass $200, though newer systems can be bought for under $100.

A fan still must be attached to the radiator to help cool it, but it doesn’t have to spin as quickly as it would if it were attached to a heat sink. As a result, most liquid-cooled systems emit no more than 30 decibels.


Overclocking can be considered a subset of modding. This is a casual expression for modifying hardware, software or anything else to get a device to perform beyond its original intention. If you own an unlocked CPU you can get significant added performance, for free, by overclocking the processor. When modifying processor speeds, i.e. increasing them, high temperatures will occur. Higher performance cooling solutions are needed.

Fig. 7. YouTube Video of Overclocked CPU Melting Solder Before It Stops Working at 234°C.[12]

To serve the world of overclockers, a steady stream of air and liquid cooling systems are being developed. Many of them are high precision, effective, stylish and surprisingly affordable. Often they share the same technology as mass market quantity, lower performing cooling systems (basic heat sinks, heat pipes, for example), but provide much higher cooling capabilities for ever-increasing processor speeds.

1. Gamecrate.com, https://www.gamecrate.com/basics-overclocking/10239
2. Techreport.com, http://techreport.com/review/27543/cooler-master-hyper-d92-cpu-cooler-reviewed/3
3. Legitreviews.com, http://www.legitreviews.com/intel-devils-canyon-coming-this-month-intel-core-i7-4790k-core-i5-4690k_143234
4. Digitaltrends.com, http://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/should-you-overclock-your-pcs-processor/
5. Techradar.com, http://www.techradar.com/how-to/computing/how-to-overclock-your-cpu-1306573
6. Alcpu.com, http://www.alcpu.com/CoreTemp/
7. Coolermaster.com, http://www.coolermaster.com/cooling/cpu-air-cooler/hyper-212-evo/
8. Digitaltrends.com, http://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/heres-why-you-should-liquid-cool-your-cpu/
9. Coolermaster.com, http://www.coolermaster.com/cooling/cpu-liquid-cooler/nepton-280l/
10. Gizmodo.com, http://gizmodo.com/5696553/digital-storms-new-gaming-pcs-use-sub-zero-liquid-cooling-system-for-insane-overclocks
11. Digitalstorm.com, http://www.digitalstorm.com/cryo-tec.asp
12. Youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NEn9DHmjk0

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

#JustChilling: ATS Recirculating and Immersion Chillers for Liquid Cooling Systems

ATS Chillers

Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc. has a line of recirculating and immersion chillers for conditioning the coolant in liquid cooling systems. (Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.)

ATS offers a variety of chillers, including the CHILL V and CHILL iM series, for conditioning the coolant in liquid cooling systems. The ATS-CHILL V series, including the ATS-Chill150V, ATS-Chill300V, and ATS-Chill600V, are re-circulating, vapor compression chillers that offers precise coolant temperature control using a PID controller. The ATS-CHILL iM is an immersion chiller for precise control of the bath temperature by immersing the evaporator in a fluid bath.

Learn more about ATS recirculating and immersion chillers in this recent blog post or in the video below:

ATS Liquid Cooling Products

In addition to chillers, ATS has a complete product offering for Liquid Cooling Closed Loop Systems, including flow meters, leak detectors, heat exhangers, and cold plates. ATS can also design off-the-shelf or custom liquid cooling systems to meet the thermal needs of a project.

ATS 3-Core design approach identifies the type of cooling required at the analysis level and informs the client of its options, saving cost and time on design iteration and simulation verification. Once it is determined that liquid cooling is the option to pursue, the ATS design team identifies all the required components of the liquid loop, as well its packaging requirements and integration in the system.

ATS offers a complete array of off-the-shelf liquid loop components that can be readily deployed or custom-designed to meet the thermal requirements of the system. Subsequent integration of the liquid loop into the system provides the customer with a turn-key option for thermal management of their system.

Don’t get burned! Take advantage of ATS expertise in liquid and air cooling to ensure proper thermal management for your project.

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

Industry Developments: Cooling Electronics in Wind Turbines

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

(This article will be featured in an upcoming 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. To read the preceding post on Cooling Solar Power Inverters, click https://www.qats.com/cms/2016/11/21/industry-developments-cooling-solar-power-inverters.)

Wind power systems capture natural air currents and convert them, first to mechanical energy and then electricity. Windmills have long harnessed natural, renewable wind currents to grind grains and pump water. Now those windmills have evolved into highly engineered wind turbines, with very long, highly-engineered blades spinning on steel towers some that are tens of meters high.

There are some relatively small wind turbines that power individual houses or businesses. They can generate around 100 kW of power. But most of today’s wind turbine industry is for utility-scale power generation. These are large, tall wind turbines, in fields of dozens or hundreds, delivering high levels of electricity to power grid systems that reach thousands of end users. More than a quarter million of such turbines are in use around the world.

Cooling Electronics in Wind Turbines

Fig. 1. The Alta Wind Energy Center in California has more than 600 wind turbines and can produce more than 1.5 GW of power. [1]

Most utility-scale wind turbines are built on open, naturally windy land or off-shore. Each turbine can produce 1.0-1.5 MW, enough energy to power hundreds of homes. The United States has about 75 GW of installed wind power capacity. And, despite some local resistance, the U.S. has begun to join other countries with off-shore installations. China has by far the most installed wind power capacity at about 150 GW. Globally, the combined power capacity from wind turbines is forecast to nearly double between 2016 and 2020 to 792 GW. This would be enough to power 220 million average homes in the U.S. [2, 3]

Mechanics of Wind Turbines

When natural wind blows past a turbine, its blades capture the energy and rotate. This rotation spins a shaft inside the rotor. The shaft is connected to a gearbox that can increase the speed of rotation. The gearbox connects to a generator that produces electricity. Most wind turbines consist of a steel tubular tower. On top of this is a nacelle structure, housing the turbine’s shaft, gearbox, generator and controls.

On the wind-facing end of the nacelle is a hub to which the turbine blades are attached. Together, the blades and the hub are called the rotor. The diameter of the rotor determines how much energy a turbine can generate. The larger the rotor, the more kinetic energy is harnessed. Furthermore, a larger rotor requires a taller tower, which exposes the rotor to faster winds. [4]

A wind turbine is equipped with wind assessment equipment, including weather vanes. These send data to a computer to automatically rotate the turbines into the face of the wind and to a pitch system that can angle the blades to further optimize energy capture. [5]

Cooling Electronics in Wind Turbines

Fig. 2. The major components of a wind turbine. [6]

Turbines and Fire

Hundreds of wind turbines catch fire each year. The most common cause is lightning strikes, but overheated equipment can also be responsible. Highly flammable materials such as hydraulic lubrication oil and plastics are in close proximity to machinery and electrical wires inside the nacelle. A fire can ignite from faulty wiring or overheating. The results are catastrophic. The rush of oxygen from high winds can quickly expand a fire inside a nacelle. Once a fire starts, it is not likely to be deliberately extinguished. Water hoses can’t reach a nacelle’s height and wind turbines like these are typically set in remote locations, far from emergency aid. [7]

Cooling Electronics in Wind Turbines

Fig. 3. A wind turbine’s blazing nacelle and hub at a wind farm in Germany. Lubricating oil is often the fuel when these fires occur. [8]

Electronic Devices in the Nacelle – and Heat

Most wind turbines don’t catch fire, of course. Yet, despite all the surrounding wind, the electronics in their nacelles still need significant thermal management to function continuously. The most important electronics are the generator and power converting devices.

The generator is the heart of a wind turbine. It converts the rotational energy of the wind-spun rotor into electrical energy. It generates the electric power that the wind turbine system feeds into the grid.

Generating electricity always entails the loss of heat, causing the generator’s copper windings to get hot. Larger capacity generators are even further challenged. The thermal losses will increase with the generator in proportion to the cube of its linear dimensions, resulting in a serious decline in generator efficiency.[9]

Excess generator heat must be dissipated to maintain efficiency and avoid damage. On most wind turbines this is accomplished by enclosing the generator in a duct, using a large fan for air cooling. Some manufacturers provide water-cooled generators that can be used in wind turbines. The water-cooled models require a radiator in the nacelle to void the heat from the liquid cooling matrix.

Wind turbines may be designed with either synchronous or asynchronous generators, and with various forms of direct or indirect connection to the power grid. Direct grid connection means that the generator is connected to the (usually 3-phase) alternating current grid.

Wind turbines with indirect grid connections typically use power converters. These can be AC-AC converters (sometimes called AC/DC-AC converters). They change the AC to direct current (DC) with a rectifier and then back to usable AC using an inverter. In this process, the current passes through a series of Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor switches (IGBTs). These convert direct current into alternating current to supply to the grid by generating an artificial sine wave. The more frequently the switch is turned on and off, the closer to a true sine wave the current flow becomes, and the more sine-like the flow, the purer the power. The resulting AC is matched to the frequency and phase of the grid. [10]

However, the faster these switches actuate, the more heat they develop and given a wind turbine’s variable inputs, IGBTs for this application need to cycle very frequently. This generates large amounts of heat that will dramatically decrease overall efficiency unless properly cooled. [11]

Cooling Electronics in Wind Turbines

Fig. 4. An active air cooling system inside a wind turbine nacelle features an air-to-air heat exchanger for managing heat in the generator (Vensys). [12]

Even with efficiency improvements, a wind turbine’s power generation systems and subsystems must manage ever increasing heat within its limited nacelle space. In addition, even if incurred power losses are as little as 3-5 percent, thermal management systems would have to dissipate 200-300 kW and more of heat.

Air cooling has been used effectively in small-scale wind turbines, but it is not practical for removing the heat produced in MW-scale units. Its thermal capacity is so low that it is difficult to blow enough air across a motor or through the converter to maintain reliable operating temperatures. That is why water cooling is used more often than air for larger wind turbines.

Cooling Electronics in Wind Turbines

Fig. 5. Electronics in a medium voltage (Up to 12 MW) wind turbine converter. Cooling is provided by a closed-loop unit with a mix of deionized water and glycol (ABB).[13]

However, water cooled systems are relatively large, and their thermal efficiency limitations force the size and weight of power generation sub-systems to essentially track their power throughput. Due to the thermal performance limitations of water, the power-generation equipment for a 10 MW wind turbine is nearly twice the size and weight of a 5 MW model. This is largely because water cooling cannot adequately remove additional heat loads without spreading them out.

One supplier of liquid cooling systems for wind turbine electronics is Parker Hannifin. Its Vaporizable Dielectric Fluid (VDF) system provides heat transfer capability significantly greater than that of water. The VDF system requires less fluid and lower pump rates. The same dissipation rates provided by a 6 liter/minute water flow can be achieved by 1 liter/minute VDF flow, thus allowing for a smaller system.

The hermetically sealed VDF assembly is designed to be leak proof, but if a leak occurs the non-conductive fluid will not damage electronic components. The cooling system’s efficiencies and lack of thermal stack-up provide an additional advantage in that the system maintains a fairly tight temperature range. The lack of thermal cycling removes a strain on the turbine’s electronics, which extends their useful life. [14]

Cooling Electronics in Wind Turbines

Figure 6. Dual-phase liquid cooling method for converters has a circulating refrigerant in a closed-loop. Vaporizing coolant removes heat from devices and re-condenses to liquid in a heat exchange (Parker). [15]


Heat issues in wind turbine electronics mainly concern the generator and the power conversion electronics. The heat load of the generator comes from copper wire resistance and from iron loss from the rotation of the core. Further heat loss is mechanical due to friction. These energy losses become heat energy that is distributed into the wind turbine nacelle.

The excess heat from the nacelle-based power conversion systems is mainly due to impedance from electronic components such as capacitors and thyristors. Higher temperatures will reduce the system’s life and increase failure rate. Thermal management methods such as liquid cooling can be effectively adapted for nacelle electronics. [10]

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alta_Wind_Energy_Center
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_by_country
3. http://www.ozy.com/fast-forward/how-twinning-tech-will-power-our-future/71993
4. Layton, Julia, How Wind Power Works, HowStuffWorks.com.
5. http://www.awea.org/Resources/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=900&navItemNumber=587
6. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/smart-grid-energy-harvesting-martin-ma-mba-med-gdm-scpm-pmp
7. http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_17-7-2014-8-56-10
8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYoQ6mS2gss
9. http://ele.aut.ac.ir/~wind/en/tour/wtrb/electric.htm
10. Jian, S., Xiaoqian, M., Shuying, C. and Huijing, G., Review of the Cooling Technology for High-power Wind Turbines, 5th Intl Conf on Advanced Design and Manufacturing Engineering, 2015.
11. http://www.windpowerengineering.com/design/mechanical/cooling-electronics-in-a-hot-nacelle/
12. http://www.vensys.de/energy-en/technologie/generatorkuehlung.php
13. https://library.e.abb.com/public/430f5f2493334e4ead2a56817512d78e/PCS6000%20Rev%20B_EN_lowres.pdf
14. http://www.windsystemsmag.com/article/detail/60/cool-system-hot-results
15. http://buyersguide.renewableenergyworld.com/parker-hannifin-renewable-energy-solutions/pressrelease/parker-to-launch-converter-cooling-systems-for-1mw-wind-turbines-at-husum-wind-energy-2012.html

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