What is the Best Material for Electronics Thermal Management? Diamond Materials, Part 3Gary Kardys | August 29, 2018
Diamond has the highest thermal conductivity of any material, which makes it an excellent choice for thermal management in electronic devices. Once a semiconducting device is fabricated, the chip must be packaged and built into an electrical system or electronic product. The superior thermal properties of diamond materials - it has the highest thermal conductivity and a low thermal expansion coefficient - can be leveraged for thermal management in electronic packaging and electrical power systems.
Diamond Thermal Spreaders and Heat Sinks
Diamond’s thermal conductivity is five times higher than copper's. While copper is a great thermal conductor, copper also conducts electricity. Metals conduct heat and electricity via free electrons. Circuits need to be electrically isolated from the copper to prevent shorting. Diamond, however, has high dielectric strength.
Diamond, ceramics, glasses and other electrical insulators conduct heat through phonons or lattice vibrations. Diamond has a rigid lattice due to extremely strong atomic bonding. Diamond’s rigid lattice provides high vibrational frequencies and therefore a high Debye temperature of 2,220 K resulting in limited impedance from phonon-phonon scattering.
The combination of high thermal conductivity and high dielectric strength of diamond heat sinks is valuable for high-power laser diode arrays, RF modules and high-power transistors. Beryllium oxide (BeO) substrates are used in some of the electronic packaging applications due to its combination of high thermal conductivity and dielectric strength. Diamond heat spreaders have replaced toxic BeO spreaders while providing improved heat dissipation. Element 6 provides ranges of chemical vapor deposition (CVD) diamond heat spreaders with varying thermal conductivities under the Diafilm brand name. Electronic heat sinks and packaging substrates made from diamond are excellent at dissipating heat, while also electrically insulating the microelectronics from other devices and circuit components. Efficient heat dissipation prolongs the lifetime of those electronic devices, and the devices' high replacement costs justify the use of efficient, though relatively expensive diamond heat sinks. Synthetic diamond heat spreaders prevent silicon and other semiconducting materials from overheating.
CVD diamond has a much lower coefficient of thermal expansion (about 1 ppm/° C) compared to silicon (2.6 ppm/° C), GaAs (5.7 ppm/° C), GaN (3.2 – 5.6 ppm/° C) and copper (16.6 ppm/° C). The thermal expansion differences must be accounted for and modeled early in the design process to prevent stresses during thermal cycling from reducing device lifetime and reliability. In some designs, electronic devices are sandwiched between two diamond layers to balance stresses.
Diamond substrates can be used as a packaging material through metallization and soldering to provide a thermal solution. Direct deposition of CVD diamond onto devices is another method for integrating a heat spreader into a product. Another approach is to use prefabricated diamond wafers on which multiple conventional semiconductor devices or diamond semiconducting devices are fabricated.
In experiments to develop for high electron mobility transistors (HEMTs) (GaN-on-diamond substrates for HEMT applications), thermal conductivity measurements of the gallium nitride (GaN)-on-diamond and GaN-on-silicon carbide (SiC) indicated that diamond could drive down thermal impedance (° C/W) by as much as 58% compared to SiC, along with three-fold higher power density. As a result, a GaN-on-diamond field-effect transistors could have a power density three times higher. GaN-on-diamond wafers would be an ideal platform for high-power GaN transistors deployed in cellular base stations and military communications applications.
Diamond-Filled Thermal Interface Compound and Transformer Oils
Several manufacturers are producing diamond-filled thermal interface materials in the form of thermal compounds, thermal adhesives, thermal pastes, thermal greases, thermal pads or thermal sealants. Innovation Cooling’s IC Diamond Thermal Compound and Alfa International’s Alfa Ultratherm 500 are a non-conductive, diamond powder-filled thermal greases. Each tube of IC Diamond contains seven carats of diamond. Atom Adhesives AA-Supertherm 05 is a thermally conductive adhesive. Thermal interface compounds reduce the thermal impedance between an electronic device or CPU and a heat spreader or heat sink by filling in the air gap with a thermally conductive material.
The diamond particles in these compounds are typically in the micron diameter range, but several manufacturers are finding nanodiamond additions to dielectric fluids, greases and oils are beneficial. Power transformers can explode when their dielectric oil overheats. Femto Science has developed nanodiamond particle-filled dielectric fluids to provide transformer oil with high thermal conductivity, which lowers temperature and allows high electrical loads.
While diamond has outstanding thermal properties, some diamond experts consider diamond to be the ultimate dielectric material, which has applications in shrinking and increasing the performance of passive devices.
Stay tuned for part 4 of this article series on diamond materials.
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