If this property of the foam seems a little counter-intuitive, that’s because foam materials are often associated with with heat insulation properties. But in this case, the foam acts as a super heat radiator. A story in an ORNL newsletter said the stuff worked so well that if you put an ice cube on a hockey puck-sized chunk of the graphite foam, and put the foam on you hand, “the cube melts from your body heat as if it were on a hot griddle.”
At the time, Klett, a researcher in the lab’s Metals and Ceramics Division, noted that, “Graphite foam is as thermally conductive as aluminum at one-fifth the weight. It has a very high surface-area-to-weight ratio and a high heat transfer coefficient. This interests engineers and designers because products that use energy wage an ongoing battle with heat,” he says.
He said the key to the foam’s conductivity is its unusual graphite crystal structure that is full of air pockets, making it only 25% dense and lightweight. A network of graphite “ligaments” in the foam wicks heat away from its source.
When they made their discovery, Klett and Burchell were building on a legacy of carbon innovations that go back to at least the 1960s when Johhn Googin developed the first method to produce carbon foams was used as high-temperature furnace insulation. Klett and Burchell also developed a commercial carbon-carbon disk brakes system.
Over the past decade, Klett, Burchell and ORNL have licensed the special foam for numerous applications – especially with mechanical and electronic heat-transfer applications – and the material garnered an R&D 100 award.
Now, the foam’s ability to act as an efficient heat sink is being put to new uses in the world of energy-efficient lighting. On Friday, ORNL announced that it has licensed the foam to LED North America for use in commercial LED lighting systems such as in the large arrays now being manufactured for street lamps and parking garages.
The lab says passive cooling materials, such as the foam, are needed to increase LED efficiency and lifetime. ORNL reports that each 10° decrease in temperature can double the life of the lighting components. “While this technology will reduce temperatures and increase the life of the LED lighting systems, what it will really do is save municipalities millions of dollars every year in replacement fixture costs as well as maintenance,” Klett said.
Besides being lightweight, Klett says the foam is easy to machine and use in manufacturing. These advantages give it a growing edge compared to traditional heat transfer materials, such as copper or aluminum.
LED North America president Andrew Wilhelm predicts that the foam will double the life of the LED units. He also says the first lamps using the foam will be installed later this year in an ORNL parking lot.