UH Physicist on Board for Thermal Conductor Research

A physicist from the University of Houston will participate in a $7.5 million collaboration to develop an innovative material with a higher conductivity than diamonds.

Zhifeng Ren, MD Anderson Professor of physics is working to produce a thermal conductor with high tech cooling applications. (CREDIT: University of Houston)

The project involves scientists from across the nation and is funded by the U.S. Navy’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative. The team intends to create an inexpensive and effective thermal conductor of boron arsenide.

Earlier research conducted in this field has anticipated the potential of boron arsenide to be a better thermal conductor than diamonds, says UH’s MD Anderson Professor, Zhifeng Ren. Thermal conductors prevent the overheating of electronic devices by enabling the transfer of heat energy within a material.

A sum of $1.3 million will be granted to Ren to fund the exploration of the material in the form of thin films or single crystals.

Researchers from various institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and Boston College, are part of the research that is headed by Li Shi, who is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.

Ren’s research team has been the first to record the boron arsenide’s thermal conductivity levels, says Shi.

They have proposed novel methods to grow this and other potentially ultrahigh thermal conductivity materials. Their efforts are instrumental for the success of this multidisciplinary project.

Li Shi, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Texas

Diamond with a thermal conductivity level of over 2,000 watts per meter per Kelvin is believed to be one of the best thermal conductors under room temperature. The conductivity level of diamond is five times more that that of copper.

However, diamonds are not affordable. David Broido, a Boston College physicist, has theorized that the established industry standard of diamond’s thermal conductivity can be achieved by boron arsenide. The researchers intend to prove this theory and as such lead to the development of better advanced cooling applications, said Ren.

One single crystal has been made out of the material, at Ren’s laboratory, which started exploring it a year ago. Though the crystal has flaws, it was able to achieve approximately 10% of Broido’s anticipated level, 200 watts/meter/Kelvin.

The experiment however proved that the team was on the right track.

This was very preliminary work, so there is hope that this material can have very high thermal conductivity. If we are successful, it would be a big improvement for high-powered electronics.

Zhifeng Ren, MD Anderson Professor, University of Houston

Boron has a very high melting point, approximately 3,767 degrees Fahrenheit or 2,075 degrees centigrade. Arsenic, however, has a melting point that falls between 400 and 500 degrees centigrade. In addition to these challenges, the team must also create a crystal that is 10 to 100 times bigger than the one created the previous year, or the crystal should be nearly one millimeter, so as to get the accurate outcomes.

“We have to demonstrate we can make bigger crystals, and that the crystals have thermal conducting properties that are truly high,” he said.

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