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July 12, 2013

Graphene Promises Cooler, Greener Computing

Modern computing and heat do not mix. In order to reduce outages and extend system life, datacenter operators spend a significant portion of their budget on cooling IT equipment. Now there's new hope for this energy-intensive problem, a wonder-material called graphene.

An international research team from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has shown that graphene has a remarkable heat-dissipating effect on silicon-based electronics. The research could pave the way for more energy-efficient, longer-lasting computers.

The researchers concentrated on reducing the temperature of tiny hot spots, areas where electronics work most intensively – such as inside a processor. The hot spots are on the micro or nano scale, meaning a thousandth of a millimetre or smaller.

"This discovery opens the door to increased functionality and continues to push the boundaries when it comes to miniaturising electronics," said Chalmers Professor Johan Liu who heads the research project.

Keeping IT equipment cool is a balancing act between extending system life and keeping the facilities bill in check. Datacenter operators commonly spend as much cooling systems as they do operating them. They fear the heat for good reason: experts estimate that a 10-degree Celsius increase in temperature reduces the working life of an electronics system by 50 percent.

Adding a thin layer of graphene can have a significant effect, reducing the working temperature in hotspots inside a processor by up to 25 percent.

"The normal working temperature in the hotspots we have cooled with a graphene layer has ranged from 55 to 115 degrees Celsius. We have been able to reduce this by up to 13 degrees, which not only improves energy efficiency, it also extends the working life of the electronics," said Liu.

The benefits of this research would extend to any electronics system where efficient cooling is a challenge, for example the embedded space, but it's easy to see the potential for datacenters where it's common for cooling to comprise half of all energy consumed.

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