Excess heat given off by smartphones, laptops and other electronic devices can be annoying, but beyond that it contributes to malfunctions and, in extreme cases, can even cause lithium batteries to explode.
To guard against such ills, engineers often insert glass, plastic or even layers of air as insulation to prevent heat-generating components like microprocessors from causing damage or discomforting users.
Now, Stanford researchers have shown that a few layers of atomically thin materials, stacked like sheets of paper atop hot spots, can provide the same insulation as a sheet of glass 100 times thicker. In the near term, thinner heat shields will enable engineers to make electronic devices even more compact than those we have today, said Eric Pop, professor of electrical engineering and senior author of a paper published Aug. 16 in Science Advances.
To make nanoscale heat shields practical, the researchers will have to find some mass production technique to spray or otherwise deposit atom-thin layers of materials onto electronic components during manufacturing. But behind the immediate goal of developing thinner insulators looms a larger ambition: Scientists hope to one day control the vibrational energy inside materials the way they now control electricity and light. As they come to understand the heat in solid objects as a form of sound, a new field of phononics is emerging, a name taken from the Greek root word behind telephone, phonograph and phonetics.
“As engineers, we know quite a lot about how to control electricity, and we’re getting better with light, but we’re just starting to understand how to manipulate the high-frequency sound that manifests itself as heat at the atomic scale,” Pop said.