Oscillating Heat Pipes (OHPs) for High-Power Electronics Thermal Management

Oscillating Heat Pipes (OHPs) for High-Power Electronics Thermal Management

Waste heat from advanced electronics limits system performance. This is true for computers, consumer electronics, and aerospace systems; and, it is especially true for satellites with components such as digital signal processors that run at just 10 percent of their terrestrial performance levels. Further complicating this situation is the fact that components continue to shrink in size and increase in performance, thus making the heat problem more challenging. Next-generation electronics are expected to operate 100 times higher than current levels. Without proper thermal management technologies, these electronics will quickly destroy themselves.

To tackle this challenge, the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate (AFRL/RV), in partnership with ThermAvant Technologies, Boeing and NASA, developed oscillating heat pipes (OHPs), which consist of a meandering microchannel that is partially filled with a fluid and embedded in a structure. Unlike heat pipes traditionally used to cool high-performance electronics, OHPs do not contain a wick structure. This difference makes OHPs cheaper to manufacture and, more importantly, alters how they operate, which allows OHPs to transfer significantly more heat than heat pipes. Thus, OHPs can handle more than 200 times more heat, which increases capability and reduces the cost for a wide range of high-performance systems, including Air Force and commercial communication satellites. For communication satellites, this means more bandwidth, faster speeds, and better signal reliability at reduced cost—whether supporting the warfighter or transmitting DIRECTV Sunday Ticket.

In 2008, AFRL/RV initiated OHP research focused on the basic operation principles of the technology. During summer 2012, AFRL investigated the gravitational independence of OHP operation on NASA’s microgravity aircraft, aka the “Vomit Comet.” This flight experiment proved the OHPs’ gravity independence and suitability for space applications. In December 2011, AFRL initiated the technology transfer partnership using a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract for improving heat rejection in next-generation electronics. AFRL wrote the SBIR topic solicitation, and ThermAvant responded. This initial contract led to the formation of a partnership with ThermAvant and Boeing for the transition of commercial OHP products.

The multi-partner effort led directly to the testing, demonstration, and commercialization of OHPs, including an on-orbit demonstration on the USAF X-37B space plane. Through successful in-house and contracted research, as well as AFRL-led flight experiments, ThermAvant made its first commercial sales in 2013. Since then, ThermAvant has executed more than 14 procurement agreements with 11 prime contractors, addressing needs for the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and consumer electronics companies. This technology has the potential to change the face of an entire industry by replacing traditional heat pipes with OHPs, and its huge success is due to the AFRL team.

Contact: Dr. Andrew Williams, (505) 846-0396, andrew.williams.24@us.af.mil

Winner not pictured:
Dr. Joy Stein