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Scientists have demonstrated a new material that conducts heat 150% more efficiently

Jan 5, 2006
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The device – an ultrathin silicon nanowire – could enable smaller, faster microelectronics with a heat-transfer-efficiency that surpasses current technologies. Electronic devices powered by microchips that efficiently dissipate heat would in turn consume less energy – an improvement that could help mitigate the consumption of energy produced by burning carbon-rich fossil fuels that have contributed to global warming.

“By overcoming silicon’s natural limitations in its capacity to conduct heat, our discovery tackles a hurdle in microchip engineering,” said Junqiao Wu, the scientist who led the Physical Review Letters study reporting the new device. Wu is a faculty scientist in the Materials Sciences Division and professor of materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley.

Heat’s slow flow through silicon

Our electronics are relatively affordable because silicon – the material of choice for computer chips – is cheap and abundant. But although silicon is a good conductor of electricity, it is not a good conductor of heat when it is reduced to very small sizes – and when it comes to fast computing, that presents a big problem for tiny microchips.

Within each microchip resides tens of billions of silicon transistors that direct the flow of electrons in and out of memory cells, encoding bits of data as ones and zeroes, the binary language of computers. Electrical currents run between these hard-working transistors, and these currents inevitably generate heat.

Heat naturally flows from a hot object to a cool object. But heat flow gets tricky in silicon.

In its natural form, silicon is made up of three different isotopes – forms of a chemical element containing an equal number of protons but different number of neutrons (hence different mass) in their nuclei.

About 92% of silicon consists of the isotope silicon-28, which has 14 protons and 14 neutrons; around 5% is silicon-29, weighing in at 14 protons and 15 neutrons; and just 3% is silicon-30, a relative heavyweight with 14 protons and 16 neutrons, explained co-author Joel Ager, who holds titles of senior scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and adjunct professor of materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley.

More: https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2022/05/17/silicon-nanowires-take-the-heat/