Neurosurgery requires tools that are as precise and reliable as possible. Bipolar forceps, one important tool of the trade, use electricity to cut and cauterize tissue, but that produces unnecessary and potentially dangerous heat.
To avoid singeing healthy brain tissue, that heat needs to be drawn out. One method to do that is installing heat pipes—a technology that owes a lot of its development to NASA funding and which has proven useful to the Agency in a number of ways over the years.
Heat pipes “are like a superhighway for heat,” explains Glenn Research Center’s Kenneth Burke. First developed decades ago, they work essentially like a heating system with boilers and radiators. Inside the pipe, a liquid heats up and evaporates. It travels to the cooler end where it loses that heat through convection, effectively transferring the heat from one end of the heat pipe to the other.
Over the course of more than 40 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts since the 1980s, many of them from Glenn Research Center, NASA has helped Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based Thermacore advance the technology of heat pipes for high-tech applications, including most recently for the thin spaces between fuel cells, a design that Burke says will likely find other applications at NASA as well.
“There are lots of applications where heat needs to get removed from very tight spaces,” he notes. “We’re always trying to cram 10 pounds of heat-producing electronics in 5-pound boxes.”
And in the last decade or so, Thermacore has taken that expertise in heat pipes, honed in part through its NASA SBIR contracts, and adapted it to medical uses.
The medical applications include bipolar forceps used in brain surgery, where “the result was a dramatic improvement in surgical precision, reduced procedure times, and better patient outcomes,” says Thermacore’s Michael Bucci.