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IBM to cool chips with H20

Much like a Porsche boxer engine -- only much, much smaller -- scientists from the IBM Zurich Research Lab and the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin are working on a microchip that uses micro pipes of water to cool itself, IBM announced this morning.The chip's components are built in a three-dimensional stack instead of side-by-side on a silicon wafer.
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Written by Andrew Nusca, Former editor on

IBM cools microchips with waterMuch like a Porsche boxer engine -- only much, much smaller -- scientists from the IBM Zurich Research Lab and the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin are working on a microchip that uses micro pipes of water to cool itself, IBM announced this morning.

The chip's components are built in a three-dimensional stack instead of side-by-side on a silicon wafer. Water is pumped a cooling container (purple in the image above) through the chip's layers through spaces directly integrated within the chips' structure (orange, above).

Chips built in a three-dimensional stack formation offer more pathways for info to be processed and can shorten the distance chip information needs to travel by as much as 1000 times, according to Thomas Brunschwiler, a senior engineer in the Advanced Thermal Packaging Group at the IBM Zurich Research Lab who has been working on the chip for almost two years.

The trouble, of course, is that this type of experimental chip structure also generates a large amount of heat. To address the problem, the team has developed a cooling system consisting of micro pipes of water as narrow as 50 microns -- about as thin as a strand of human hair -- that are interspersed between each chip layer.

To prevent an electrical short, the hair-like water pipes are hermetically sealed from the chip's other components first with a silicon wall and then a layer of silicon oxide, Brunschwiler said. The scientists used a solder consisting of a mixture of gold and tin, which has a low melting point, to bond the individual pipes from layer to layer without damaging other chip components.

Intended for use in supercomputers, the chip is five to ten years away from being commercially available.

"But before that one would probably see chips with one core layer and a memory layer sitting on top that can still be cooled with outside system," Brunschwiler said.

It should be noted that this isn't the first time water has come up on the drawing board for cooling. As many of you are aware, companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard sell server racks with liquid cooling systems. Researchers at the Tyndall Institute in Cork and the University of Limerick announced in March that they are working on a liquid cooling system incorporated into the packaging that encases chips. And in April IBM announced a supercomputer that uses water alongside its processors to cool them.

[Thanks to Candace Lombardi at Planetary Gear for this.]

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