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July - 2008 - issue > Tech Tracker
IBM Chills Chips with Water
Christo Jacob
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Researchers at IBM's Zurich lab continue to brainstorm on cooling the chips. IBM researchers in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin demonstrated a prototype that integrates the cooling system into the 3D chips by piping water directly between each layer in the stack. As chips get smaller and smaller, cramming more processing power into ever-tinier spaces, the heat thrown off by the miniature circuits becomes harder to manage. Researchers believe that chocking water through hair-thin pipes inside chips will solve the vexing problem facing next-generation computers.

Cooling measures used now to avoid chip meltdowns, including 'heat sinks' made from heat-absorbing materials, might not work on tinier scales. In a future microprocessor design that IBM is exploring the chips are stacked vertically instead of next to each other to save space and enhance performance.

Project leader Thomas Brunschwiler finds that to exploit the potential of high-performance 3D chip stacking we need interlayer cooling. The system uses pipes that are just 50 microns wide, which is 50 millionths of a meter. The tiny tubes are sealed to prevent leaks and electrical shorts.

Even these micro amounts of water can handle phenomenal cooling chores, because water is much more efficient than air at absorbing heat. This is the first time microchips have utilized the benefits of water. Analyst Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group finds, "It's never been applied this close to the heart of the matter."
As per the estimates, the technique would allow chip designers to boost the number of data transfer channels by a factor of 100 and dramatically reduce the amount of space required for data to travel between components. However, IBM's tiny pipes aren't out of the laboratory yet.
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