Scientists use crystal ARSENIC to cool down computer chips


Smartphones might not be able to get any smaller, or more powerful, scientists have argued.

They argue the technology used to cool down computer chips cannot keep up with the ever-improving speed of everyday gadgets, including laptops and smartphones.

To combat the issue, a US team has developed a new form of heat-dispelling crystal made using the deadly poison arsenic.

They say it cools down computer chips as effectively as diamond, which dispels heat better than any known material.

Whisking away heat from circuitry inside smartphones is critical to stop chips becoming overheated, which can cause permanent damage to the components, slow down the device, trigger freezes, or unexpected shut downs. 

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A team at the University of Texas at Dallas has developed a new form of heat-dispelling crystal made of the deadly poison arsenic (pictured). They say it cools down computer chips as effectively as diamond - which transfers heat better than any known material

A team at the University of Texas at Dallas has developed a new form of heat-dispelling crystal made of the deadly poison arsenic (pictured). They say it cools down computer chips as effectively as diamond – which transfers heat better than any known material

‘For high-powered, small electronics, we cannot use metal to dissipate heat because metal can cause a short circuit,’ said study author Dr Bing Lv (pronounced ‘love’), of the University of Texas at Dallas.

‘We cannot apply cooling fans because those take up space. What we need is an inexpensive semiconductor that also disperses a lot of heat.’

Dr Lv’s and his team believe they have the answer with a new heat-conducting crystal made up of boron, as well as arsenic in its harmless crystallised form. 

The semiconducting material called boron arsenide has an extremely high thermal conductivity – the ability to transport heat.

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It is cheaper than natural diamonds, which have the highest thermal conductivity of any material, but are only used in certain high-end devices because of their cost.

Most computer chips are made from silicon, a crystalline semiconducting material that does an adequate job of dissipating heat.

Whisking away heat from circuitry inside smartphones is critical to stopping chips from overheating, which can slow down or freeze programmes, force the device to shut down or cause permanent damage (stock image)

Whisking away heat from circuitry inside smartphones is critical to stopping chips from overheating, which can slow down or freeze programmes, force the device to shut down or cause permanent damage (stock image)

But silicon, with other cooling technology incorporated into device, can only handle only so much.

A 2016 study by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted that once the concentration of electrons on a silicon chips reached ten quintillion per square centimetre, the chips would begin to build up dangerous levels of heat.

This upper limit, caused by a phenomenon known as photon scattering, has already been reached by a growing number of the smallest transistors.

Diamond has the highest known thermal conductivity, around 2,200 watts per meter-kelvin, compared to about 150 watts per meter-kelvin for silicon.

CAN COOLING TECHNOLOGIES KEEP UP WITH THE GROWING SPEED OF SMARTPHONES?

When people spend hours on their smartphones, tablets or other gadgets they begin to generate heat.

This is because the device’s computer components and battery are releasing thermal energy with all the work they do.

Yet this can make devices too hot to handle, meaning cooling technologies like fans must be put in place.

As we demand smaller, faster and more powerful gadgets, this requires more current and generates more heat.

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Some scientists argue our ability keeping computer chips cool has reached a bottleneck as current technology is limited to the amount of heat that can be dissipated from the inside out.

A 2016 study by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted that once the concentration of electrons on a silicon chips reached ten quintillion per square centimetre, the chips would begin to build up dangerous levels of heat.

This upper limit, caused by a phenomenon known as photon scattering, has already been reached by a growing number of the smallest transistors.

Over the past three years, experiments have managed to increase boron arsenide’s thermal conductivity up to about 1,000 watts per meter-kelvin.

Prof Lv said: ‘I think boron arsenide has great potential for the future of electronics.

‘Its semiconducting properties are very comparable to silicon, which is why it would be ideal to incorporate boron arsenide into semiconducting devices.’

Prof Lv added that while the element arsenic by itself can be toxic to humans, once it is incorporated into a compound like boron arsenide, the material becomes very stable and nontoxic to humans.

The next step in the work will include trying other processes to improve the growth and properties of this material for large scale applications.

The study done in collaboration with researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Houston was published in the journal Science.





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