How a Heat Sink Works

By: Robert Hartle  | 
A heat sink
Heat sinks are designed to prevent today's high-tech computers from over heating.

Though the term heat sink probably isn't one most people think of when they hear the word computer, it should be. Without heat sinks, modern computers couldn't run at the speeds they do. Just as you cool down with a cold bottle of Gatorade after a high-impact workout, heat sinks cool down your computer's processor after it runs multiple programs at once. And without a quality heat sink, your computer processor is at risk of overheating, which could destroy your entire system, costing you hundreds, even thousands of dollars.


Heat Sinks and Electronic Devices

But what exactly is a heat sink and how does it work? Simply put, a heat sink is an object that disperses excessive heat from another object. They're most commonly used in computers but are also found in other objects that generate significant heat like cell phones, DVD players, and even refrigerators. In computers, a heat sink is an attachment for a chip that prevents excess heat from overheating the chip. In modern computers, it's as important as any other component.


The Importance of Finned Heat Sinks

If you aren't very tech-savvy, think of the heat sink like a car radiator. The same way a radiator draws heat away from your car's engine, a heat sink draws heat away from your computer's central processing unit (CPU). The heat sink has a thermal conductor that carries heat away from the CPU into fins that provide a large surface area to dissipate heat throughout the rest of the computer, thus cooling both the heat sink and processor. Both a heat sink and a radiator require surrounding air flow and, therefore, both have fans built in.

Before the 1990s, heat sinks were usually only necessary in large computers where the heat from the processor was a problem. But with the introduction of faster processors, heat sinks became essential in almost every computer because they tend to overheat without the help of a cooling mechanism.


Thermal Conductivity

Heat can be transferred in three different ways: convection, radiation and conduction. Conduction is the way heat is transferred in a solid, and therefore is the way it is transferred in a heat sink. Conduction occurs when two objects with different temperatures come into contact with one another. At the point where the two objects meet, the faster-moving molecules of the warmer object crash into the slower-moving molecules of the cooler object. When this happens, the faster-moving molecules from the warmer object give energy to the slower-moving molecules, which in turn heats the cooler object. This process is known as thermal conductivity, which is how heat sinks transfer heat away from the computer's processor.

Heat sinks are usually made of metal, which serves as the thermal conductor that carries heat away from the CPU. However, there are pros and cons to using every type of metal. First, each metal has a different level of thermal conductivity. Higher thermal conductivity is more efficient at transferring heat.


One of the most common metals used in heat sinks is aluminum. Aluminum has a thermal conductivity of 235 watts per Kelvin per meter (W/mK). (The thermal conductivity number, in this case 235, refers to the metal's ability to conduct heat. Simply put, the higher the thermal conductivity number of a metal, the more heat that metal can conduct.) Aluminum is also cheap to produce and is lightweight. When a heat sink is attached, its weight puts a certain level of stress on the motherboard, which the motherboard is designed to accommodate. Yet the lightweight makeup of aluminum is beneficial because it adds little weight and stress to the motherboard.

One of the best and most common materials used to make heat sinks is copper. Copper has a very high thermal conductivity of 400 W/mK. It is, however, heavier than aluminum and more expensive. But for operating systems that require an extensive amount of heat transfer, copper is frequently used.

So where does the heat go once it's been conducted from the processor through the heat sink? A fan inside the computer moves air across the heat sink and out of the computer. Most computers also have an additional fan installed directly above the heat sink to help properly cool the processor. Heat sinks with these additional fans are called active heat sinks, while those with a single fan are called passive heat sinks. The most common fan is the case fan, which draws cool air from outside the computer and blows it through the computer, expelling the hot air out of the rear.


The Future of Heat Sink Materials

Copper is one of the best materials for making heat sinks because of its very high thermal conductivity.

Heat sinks are like any other product in the always-advancing field of computers. Companies are constantly striving to find lighter, more conductive materials to make efficient heat sinks. They don't need to be made from just one material. For example, some heat sink producers are bonding copper and aluminum together. The design consists mainly of aluminum (for its lightweight properties) surrounded by a copper plate (for its high rate of thermal conductivity). These are great — in theory — but if the copper doesn't bond tightly with the aluminum, which is often the case in inexpensive heat sinks, the copper plate can do more harm than good.

The firm Applied Nanotech announced that the future of heat sinks is an isotropic material called CarbAl. CarbAl is made up of 20 percent aluminum and 80 percent of two different carbon-derived materials with excellent thermal conductivity. Applied Nanotech was excited about the material because it has a thermal conductivity of 425 W/mK (higher than both aluminum and copper) and has a density similar to aluminum. Basically, CarbAl is more conductive than copper and weighs the same as aluminum, making it the best of both worlds.


Another material that's gaining popularity with heat sink producers is a natural graphite composite material. It's not as conductive as copper, but it's close with a thermal conductivity of 370 W/mK. But the real advantage of graphite is its weight — it weighs just 70 percent of the weight of aluminum.

Whatever the material, there is one rule of thumb for heat sinks: inexpensive ones cost more in the long run. Many of the cheaper heat sinks on the market contain fans that use sleeve bearings. Sleeve bearings often break down after a very short period of time due to problems with their lubrication. While heat sinks with fans using ball bearings are more expensive, they last far longer than sleeve bearings and are cheaper in the long run.


Choosing a Heat Sink

When you buy a computer, whether it's a Dell, Sony, or an HP, the heat sink is already installed. However, if you're building your own computer, there are certain factors you must consider when choosing the right heat sink. Since you have so many options when choosing a processor, just be certain that the thermal output of the processor you buy matches the thermal handling capability of the heat sink you buy. To determine the heat sink performance required by the processor you buy, you need to know three things:

  • The maximum allowable case temperature (how hot the actual case of your computer can get without damage)
  • The maximum power dissipation of the processor
  • The maximum allowable inlet temperature to the heat sink

These figures should be in the owner's manual. Once you have these, they can be plugged into a mathematical formula to determine the heat sink required by your processor. The rate at which the heat sink transfers heat from the processor to the air is known as thermal resistance. To find the thermal resistance needed for the processor, you subtract the maximum inlet temperature from the maximum case temperature and divide that number by the maximum power dissipation of the processor. The thermal resistance is measured in degrees Celsius per watt (C/W).


Let's say, for example, that you buy a processor with a maximum allowable case temperature of 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit). Its maximum allowable inlet temperature is 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and it allows for a maximum power output of 110. The formula would look like this:

R = (70-36) / 110

R = 0.31 C/W

Therefore, when purchasing a heat sink for this processor, you should be sure that its thermal resistance is no higher than 0.31. It's fine to use a heat sink with a processor that has a lower thermal resistance than 0.31. This will only improve the cooling. However, as is the case with any heat sink, you should never buy one with a higher thermal resistance than is required by your processor.


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Heat Sink FAQs

How does a heat sink work?
Heat sinks work by redirecting heat flow away from a hot device. They do this by increasing the device’s surface area. In order for heat sinks to properly work, they must have a temperature higher than the surroundings to transfer heat.
What is the purpose of a heat sink?
The purpose of the heat sink is to keep the components safe from overheating. Heat sinks keep the temperature of the device at the desired range and prevent the accumulation of energy by absorbing it.
Which heat sink is best?
Most experts believe that aluminum is the best heat sink because of its lightweight and excellent thermal conductivity. More importantly, aluminum is abundantly available and cheap to fashion into functional heat sinks.
Why is a heat sink important?
Without heat sinks, most modern-day electronics would overheat very quickly and require costly repairs as a result. In the case of low temperatures, heat sinks can release thermal energy for adequate operation of the device.
Are heat sinks better than fans?
Heatsinks are good at what they do, but they shouldn’t be used without an external fan. For best results, heat sinks should be used in conjunction with fans. The heat sink draws heat away from the device and the fan provides a steady stream of air.