The big picture: Researchers from the University of California have developed a first-of-its-kind, solid-state thermal transistor that could one day be used to better control heat in electronic devices. Combined with other advancements, the tech could help enable faster and more powerful processors.

Heat is the number one enemy of electronics. As the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) correctly highlights, heatsinks have historically been used to passively draw excess heat away from a source. Active approaches that involve moving parts or liquids have also found success, but they can take time to effectively ramp up to meet a load.

Conversely, thermal transistors aim to control the flow of heat using an electric field. As IEEE explains, the researchers' thermal transistor utilizes a thin film of molecules that serves as a channel for the transistor. By applying an electric field, the bond in the film gets stronger which increases its thermal conductance.

The team's thermal transistor is appealing on a number of fronts. For one, it uses a small amount of power to control the flow of heat compared to other dissipation methods, and has a thermal conductance ratio that's 13 times better than molecular motion solutions. What's more, several could be used on a single package to boost cooling performance, and they could also help target hot spots in newer designs like 3D-stacked chiplets.

Lead author Yongjie Hu notes that there has been a strong desire from scientists and engineers to control heat transfer much like we control electronics, but it has been a challenging endeavor.

Best yet, it's not an either / or situation where you'd have to choose one method of cooling over another. There's no reason why thermal transistors couldn't be paired with other emerging techniques like alternative substrates, new designs, and existing cooling techniques for maximum effect.

The team's research on the topic was recently published in the journal Science. While promising, Hu concedes that the tech is still in the early stages of development and that future iterations must exhibit better performance.

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