graphene's hexagonal shape

[Image above] Credit: CORE-Materials; Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Ever since Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov conducted research on the properties of graphene, the versatile material has proven to be useful in many applications, especially electronics.

As the electronics industry continues to add more functionality and power to our mobile devices, the challenge of keeping them from overheating continues to grow.

And it’s not just smartphones that are subject to overheating. Other devices can explode and even catch fire. We all remember how heat was the culprit that turned Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphones into instant Bunsen burners. Until there are new solutions to keep our electronics from overheating, many airlines will continue to ban them on flights.

But you need not worry about the future of your smartphone or tablet—the science world is already working on solutions.

A research team from Rutgers University has found a way to create a powerful system for cooling computer chips.

According to an article on the university’s website, the problem with overheating lies in the billions of heat-generating transistors located in tiny chips that power our devices. Just like humans, transistors don’t perform well when they’re really hot—they need to be kept cool. Computers have a little fan inside that keeps them cool, but even those aren’t efficient.

Active cooling

Eva Andrei, Board of Governors professor of physics at Rutgers Department of Physics and Astronomy and part of the research team, explains in the article that graphene has several properties that make it a good material for a cooling mechanism. It’s only one-atom-thick, it’s a better conductor of electricity than copper, it’s 100 times stronger than steel, and it diffuses heat quickly.

The researchers mixed graphene with boron nitride to create the cooling mechanism. Andrei says the material is a superior base to silicon dioxide (the material currently used in computer chips) because it doesn’t cause electrons—the vehicles that carry heat away—to scatter.

Adding voltage to boron nitride sends a current through the apparatus, pushing the electrons to carry away heat. Combine that with graphene’s heat diffusion properties, and you have a quicker and more efficient cooling method—in other words, active cooling.

Andrei believes this process is where the industry is headed. “There’s a very big research push to incorporate these kinds of coolers,” she states in the article. “There is a good chance that the graphene cooler is going to win out. Other materials out there are much more expensive, they’re not as thin, and they don’t have such a high power factor.”

The next generation of computer devices may soon use more efficient cooling mechanisms—which will make us all happy, including airlines.

The paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is “High thermoelectricpower factor in graphene/hBN devices” (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1615913113).