HEAT is marvellous if you’re cooking, living in Tasmania during the winter or looking for an awesome heist movie to watch.
It is not, however, great when you’re trying to squeeze more power out of high-end consumer tech. More power generates more heat, which causes components to burn out, reduces the lifespan of the product, and (in extreme cases) can even harm the end user if it makes the product surface too hot.
A typical PC tower will have a number of fans and heat sinks in it — some machines designed for heavy-duty use or performance gaming will even have a water coolant system not unlike a miniature car radiator — but when space is at a premium, such as in a laptop or a gaming console, it’s time to start turning to rocket science when the heat is on.
Computer manufacturer Dell unveiled its new high-performance XPS 13 laptop at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and one of the highlights of the machine is the cooling system’s material, which is something right out of science fiction — and also used in the field of interplanetary exploration.
The Gore cooling silica aerogels Dell have used in the new system are also used aboard the Mars Rover.
Dell Australia/New Zealand category manager Daniel Kuo said the material was ideal for the company’s product, offering low thermal conductivity and enabling higher performance from the processor and graphics card as a result.
“The Gore material can be thought of as insulation in the walls of your house,” he said.
“Where the point of the insulation in your home is to keep the hot air in and the cold air out in the winter, our insulation does the exact same thing in our products.
“The Gore material supports direct air cooling by resisting heat transfer to the surface of our system and driving the heat into the airstream to get it quickly out of the notebook.”
Mr Kuo said temperature had rapidly become one of the limiting factors in the small laptop/netbook category, with processors sometimes operating at a maximum of 100C, and Dell had been investigating aerogel insulation for more than four years.
“The process started from a textbook literature search for insulation materials — glass fibre, dead airspace, to closed cell foam (polystyrene), and through our analysis we came to the conclusion that aerogel was the proper material; the lowest thermal conductivity — almost twice as good as the rigid foam board insulation used in homes — extremely light and one of the lowest density materials, and an opportunity to provide Dell a competitive advantage.”
Aerogel is a synthetic product in which the liquid element of the gel has been replaced by a gas; it is sometimes nicknamed “frozen smoke” due to its appearance.
Mr Kuo said the major challenge was that aerogel material was, in its usual state, extremely brittle, but after working with several companies they eventually had success with Gore, a company that is best known for making Gore-Tex fabric used in all-weather clothing. The company developed a method to overcome the issue and hold the aerogel insulator in place, allowing it be successfully integrated into Dell’s products.
The new technology has had further benefits for the company, with Mr Kuo saying the XPS-13 was the most eco-friendly laptop the company had released to date.
“It’s the most power efficient — partly due to the Gore technology — and we’ve used smarter material and avoided things like calcium. The packaging is also recycle-friendly,” he said.
Dell isn’t the only company putting a lot of resources into keeping heat down while increasing the power in their tech.
Microsoft released its latest generation Xbox One X gaming console late last year and a considerable amount of design work went into the cooling system, with the internal temperature operating in the 90C-range and the unit itself often located in places with poor ventilation such as in cabinets or beside beds.
The Xbox One X unit incorporates vapour chamber cooling, which involves deionised water in a vacuum inside a copper chamber operating in conjunction with a radiator and fan.
It is understood to be the first time the technology has been used on a consumer product on such a scale, and to further maximise the efficiency of the console’s design, the same fan which expels heat from the radiator also draws hot air away from the power supply — which is also positioned next to the fan to make the best use of available space and cooling.
Additionally, the Xbox One X motherboard is positioned at the top of the unit, which allows for additional cooling vents to be positioned on the sides of the case to help with airflow and prevent the unit from overheating, even when running at full load.
Regardless of the product, keeping things cool is not just a brand positioning necessity — it’s critical to the function and performance of the device.