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Nanotechnology used in cooling

Cooling: nanotechnology in action

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Inventions get better - and smaller

One of the greatest inventors ever, Alexander Graham Bell, was from Scotland. On March 20 1876, Bell made the first telephone call. He went on to invent many more things, such as the vinyl record.

For the past 80 years, the company Bell Labs has been following Alexander Graham Bell’s example and inventing some of the most important pieces of technology in the modern world.
It invented Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation – or laser.

Laser light is used in everything from sci-fi movies to CD players and checkout scanners. It also invented transistors and without them, we would not have computers, iPods, video games or camcorders. It was also its communications satellite, Telstar, which gave us the first live, transatlantic TV.

Cooling equipment

Over the years, inventors from Bell Labs have won nine Nobel prizes between them. Ireland plays its part in the company’s innovations and SCOPE meets Grace Jordan, a research scientist at Lucent Technologies Bell Labs Ireland.

She is part of a team working on the cooling of electronic equipment. At the moment many computers have to rely on bulky fans to cool their components. Grace demonstrates with an electronics board.

“There’s some electronic components on the board and these get quite hot during operations,” she says. “They don’t work properly if they get too hot.”


To solve the problem, the scientists have come up with a unique – and tiny – invention.
“We’re using a new material called nanograss,” says Grace. “Each blade is about 250 nanometres wide.” To realise how tiny that is: one strand of human hair is 100,000 nanometres wide.

So how does the nanograss work? Grace compares an image of a droplet of water with that of a drop of nanograss on a piece of ordinary silicon under a microscope. The water sticks to the silicon but the nanograss can interact with the surface without sticking to it, allowing scientists to control where it goes without wetting the surface it touches.

“You can see that the water is sticking to the surface,” says Grace. “When you put a droplet of water on the surface of nanograss, the water doesn’t like the nanograss very much, so it tends to ball up into a droplet. Actually there’s very little of the water touching the surface which means that it can roll across the surface quite easily.”

So how can this be used to stop a computer from overheating? “If the nanograss is in the areas that are hot, that means that you can push cooling fluid around that area very easily and you can just cool those spots. You don’t have to cool the rest of the board with a big fan.” This will all help computers to get even smaller and faster.

They say the average home contains at least 25 products that originated at Bell Labs, so keep a close eye on your next cool gadget - it might have started life in Dublin.


Learn more:

Visit Bell Labs on the web and visit Lucent’s Bell Labs centre in Ireland

Read more about nanograss