What is thermal management and why should you care

Thermal management in electronics refers to the techniques and methods used to control and regulate the temperature of electronic devices and components. This is important because high temperatures can cause damage to electronic components and lead to system failures. In extreme cases, high temperatures can even cause fires, therefore, it is important to implement effective techniques to ensure the reliability and longevity of electronic devices.

Conversion of Electrical Energy into Heat

One of the main causes of high temperatures in electronic devices is the conversion of electrical energy into heat. For example, electric vehicle batteries generate heat during charging and discharging. Effective thermal management systems, such as liquid cooling, are used to maintain optimal battery temperatures, ensuring longer battery life and preventing overheating. This occurs because of the resistance of electronic components, which causes a portion of the electrical energy to be converted into heat. External factors such as ambient temperature and humidity can also contribute to the overall temperature of electronic devices.

Cooling systems

There are several ways to prevent or reduce problems associated with thermal management in electronics. One common method is the use of cooling systems, such as fans or heat sinks, to dissipate heat from electronic components. A heat sink is a passive heat exchanger that transfers the heat generated by an electronic device to a fluid medium, such as air or a liquid, where it is dissipated. A fan can be used to increase the flow of air over the heat sink, which improves heat dissipation.

For example, in the case of high-performance computers, the CPUs and GPUs generate a lot of heat. To prevent them from overheating, heat sinks and fans are used to dissipate the heat. This keeps the temperature of the components within safe limits and prevents damage. Some high-performance computers even use liquid cooling systems, which are more effective than traditional air-cooling systems. The liquid cools the CPU and GPU much more effectively than air, allowing the system to run at higher speeds for longer periods of time without overheating.

Thermally conductive materials

Another method of thermal management is to use specific materials that have higher thermal conductivity properties, such as copper or aluminum, to dissipate heat more efficiently. For instance, LED lighting fixtures use aluminum as a heat sink material to dissipate the heat generated by the LED chips. This prevents the LEDs from overheating and extends their lifespan. Thermal interface materials (TIMs) can also be used to transfer heat away from the source. TIMs are materials that are placed between the component and the heat sink to improve thermal transfer and prevent overheating.

Low thermal resistance designs

Designing components for your product with low thermal resistance is another option. High-performance graphics cards for PC gaming often feature large heatsinks with multiple heat pipes. These designs offer a large surface area for heat dissipation, keeping the GPU temperatures low during intense gaming sessions. This can be done by using low-resistance materials or by designing the component so that it has a larger surface area for heat to dissipate. In the case of smartphones, for example, a low thermal resistance design can help to dissipate heat generated by the battery and processor, which can help to prolong the battery life.

Proper ventilation

Thermal management can also include designing for thermal dissipation by providing proper ventilation. For instance, home entertainment systems with multiple audio-visual components (AV receivers, gaming consoles, etc.) require proper ventilation to prevent overheating. They are often placed in dedicated AV cabinets with built-in fans and ventilation holes to maintain optimal operating temperatures. In the case of data centers, proper ventilation and air conditioning systems are used to keep the temperature of the servers within safe limits, which helps to prevent damage and prolong the lifespan of the servers. Like high-performance computers, liquid cooling systems can also be used to remove heat from the servers allowing them to run at higher speeds for longer periods of time.

Conclusion

Thermal management is a critical aspect of electronics design. By using cooling systems, thermally conductive materials, and designing for low thermal resistance, it is possible to prevent or reduce problems associated with excessive heat build-up in electronics.

At best, failing to achieve the right levels can be costly and, in the worst cases, catastrophic. Working closely with a design partner with demonstrable experience across a range of applications and industries can help you ensure issues are addressed from the outset. If you would like to discuss the details of a specific project with one of our team, get in touch today.New Call-to-action