From aircraft control systems to video game consoles and mobile phones, embedded systems have become inseparable from modern technology. In definition, embedded systems are a combination of computer software and hardware which are either fixed to work in a certain way or programmable. As embedded systems are generally located at the heart of machinery, engineers have needed to create a variety of thermal management systems along with them. This is to regulate the amount of heat they create and keep internal machinery safe from damage. For example, if a laptop has been running for a while, you may notice it start to radiate heat and in some cases, hear the whirring of an internal fan cooling it down. This and other thermal management instruments are an expected part of embedded systems. In this blog, we will take a look at the different forms of thermal management systems and their applications.
Heat sinks are one of the most common and simple pieces of thermal management technology. They are a passive form of thermal management, which require no electricity and can be used on any kind of device. Heat sinks work by transferring heat from a higher temperature device to a lower temperature medium (usually air). Most are created from aluminum alloy which has a high thermal conductivity value. The design of a heat sink is made specifically to maximize surface area in contact with a cooling medium. Protruding plates or “fins” on a heat sink allow air or another medium to be in contact with the hotter parts of an embedded system. Heat sinks provide a simple and inexpensive way to absorb and dissipate a moderate amount of unwanted heat from a device.
Forced air cooling uses the design of a heat sink and combines them with fans to better cool a device. The fans blow cooler air through the heat sink allowing for more capacity to absorb and transfer heat. These cooling modules are higher maintenance than a basic heat sink but are also more advanced.
Cooling plates rely on a similar principle to heat sinks but use water or other cooling fluids as opposed to air. As a result, cooling plates can cool a device much faster than air because water has a higher specific heat. This means that it takes more heat for the overall temperature of a unit of water to increase by one degree than it does for air. Cooling plates are typically made from thick conductive metal plates which keep the cooling liquid from directly interacting with air or the surrounding machinery. They function much like an ice pack and are helpful for keeping machinery cool with minimal movement.
Conductive cooling systems are a more efficient version of forced air cooling, wherein fans push warmer air out of the system and cooler air in. In order to take advantage of the natural way that heat rises, conductive cooling systems are typically made with the fans placed at the bottom and vents placed at the top. By working with the natural tendency for heat to rise, conductive cooling systems can effectively control the temperature of an embedded device.
Peltier cooling plates are a specific type of cooling module which rely on thermoelectric junctions to conduct thermoelectricity from the embedded system to the cooling plate. They take advantage of the Peltier effect, the cooling effect that occurs when electricity transfers from one component to another. Peltier cooling plates are very useful for their lack of moving parts which require very low maintenance.
Synthetic jet air cooling is a similar but more advanced version of conductive cooling. In these systems, warmer air is sucked out of a system while cooler air is jetted in. Rather than relying on fans, this version of cooling uses flexible diaphragms which vibrate at 100 times a second to create a powerful flow of air in and out of the system. Similar to when you press your thumb over the opening of a hose, synthetic jets are able to push a quicker, more forceful flow of cool air into a space because they both agitate and restrict the passage of air through its diaphragms.
As technology progresses, electronic components are becoming smaller and smaller, and are increasingly able to be programmed to self-run. More advanced thermal management systems have been created as a result. Simpler systems like heat sinks and conduction cooling have been further developed to be much smaller with far fewer moving parts. Delicate working components such as the embedded processor in a computer or phone rely heavily on micro thermal management systems from the most advanced versions to the simplest heat sinks.
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