Keeping Cool: Different Thermal Management Systems In Embedded Systems

While any computer is running, it creates thermal energy which heats up the system. When it comes to creating efficient computers and embedded systems, every engineer can explain the importance of ensuring that the devices operate at the correct temperature. When embedded systems become too hot, electrical signals may become corrupted, the hardware can become damaged or less efficient and the temperature may just render the software inoperable. With the Internet of Things becoming more prevalent, embedded devices need to be work in a way that is so seamless that we may not even realize when they are working. However, if thermal management systems are not in place, embedded systems will be more pain than they may be worth. Because of this, engineers have made thermal management an important part of every embedded system that they create.


Different Types of Thermal Management That Can Be Used on Embedded Systems

Throughout the years, engineers have developed increasingly advanced thermal management systems to keep their embedded systems at the correct temperature. There are many different types of thermal management systems that engineers can use and each one has many benefits to offer. Here are some of the most popular thermal management systems that we currently use in the technology world.


Heat Sink

A heat sink is one of the most basic, yet commonly used thermal management systems in embedded systems. A basic heatsink does not require any electricity whatsoever and can be used on any kind of device. The design of the heat sink gives it the ability to transfer heat from a higher temperature device, such as an embedded system, to a lower temperature medium. Generally, for most embedded systems, this medium is air. Most heat sinks are created from aluminum alloy because they have some of the highest thermal conductivity values.

Heat sinks have very specific designs for their purpose. A heat sink is designed to maximize its surface area in contact with the cooling medium. Heat sinks use "fins" or "inverted fins" in order to optimize the heat transfer density. These fins allow the air to be in constant contact with the hotter parts of the embedded systems to ensure that they stay at the correct temperature. While heat sinks are the most technologically basic, they require no maintenance and they are especially effective to keep your devices to run the way that they are supposed to. The more advanced systems are used when engineers need their embedded systems to be at an exact temperature range.


Forced Air Cooling

A  forced air cooling system is also a very common thermal management system. It is a more advanced heat sink.  Engineers are able to cool embedded systems down faster by combining fans and heat sinks. With these fans, cooler air is then forced through the heat sink cooling the embedded system down faster than a simple heatsink normally would. While this is one of the most common thermal management systems, it also has the most moving parts, which makes it the most high maintenance. The fans used in this system sometimes break and need to be replaced.


Cooling Plate

A cooling plate is very similar to a heat sink, except for relying on air to cool down the embedded system, the cooling plate relies on water or other refrigerant fluids. Water has a much higher specific heat than air. Therefore, a cooling plate would be able to cool the embedded system down much faster than a basic heatsink. Cooling plates make use of a thick metal conductive plate so that the embedded systems do not come in direct contact with the cooling fluid. You may be able to compare a cooling plate to an ice pack for your devices.


Conductive Cooling

Conductive cooling is one of the more advanced types of thermal management. With conductive cooling, fans are able to push the warmer air around the embedded system out and push cooler air in. Most conductive cooling systems use the physical scientific knowledge that hot air rises. So fans are placed at the bottom of the embedded system and vents are placed at the top. Therefore, when the fans begin to blow the air, the warmer air rises to the top of the system being pushed out by the cooler air coming in.


Peltier Cooling Plate

The Peltier cooling plate relies on what are called thermoelectric junctions to conduct thermoelectricity from the embedded system to the cooling plate. The cooling plate uses what is called the Peltier effect. The Peltier effect is basically the cooling effect that occurs at the junction of 2 different conductors. This helps to ensure that the embedded system itself remains at the optimal temperature. The Peltier cooling plate is especially beneficial for embedded systems because of their lack of moving parts, which makes them very low maintenance.


Synthetic Jet Air Cooling

Synthetic jet air cooling is very similar to conductive cooling except a little more advanced. Instead of relying on the hot air rising out of the system, the warmer air is sucked out of the system while the cooler air is jetted into the system. This helps to cool the system much more efficiently than the conductive cooling system. Also, the synthetic jet air cooling system is low maintenance as well, which makes it an excellent option for thermal management for many embedded systems.


Other Advancements in Thermal Management Systems

There have been a number of advancements in thermal management systems to make them more efficient. This way the thermal management systems do not necessarily need to constantly be running. There have been many advancements such as temperature sensors as well as a sensor interface. These are able to sense what temperature the embedded system is and can the turn on the thermal management system to efficiently cool the embedded system to the accurate temperature that the system should be at. This is an example of how embedded systems are actually making thermal management systems work more effectively.

Also, as thermal management systems have become more advanced, they have required much less maintenance to ensure that the embedded systems consistently run the way that they are supposed to. Engineers are always looking for ways to make thermal management systems work more efficiently to make sure that technology can run seamlessly.


The Importance of Thermal Management Systems in Embedded Systems

We live in an embedded world. From medical purposes, to eventually self-driving cars, there are times when we put our lives in the hands of embedded systems. People often don't even realize when they are using embedded systems to complete a task. If embedded systems do not work the way that they are supposed to, it could make our lives much more difficult. As more embedded systems become portable, engineers will also need to consider the environment that the devices will be in. For example, with embedded systems in self-driving cars, the car itself may be going through a hot environment that the devices cannot handle without an effective thermal management system. If that system does not work, the passengers may be stranded with a car that isn't working properly. Whenever engineers are designing an embedded system, it is vital that they consider the thermal management as well. With so many thermal management systems to choose from, it can be difficult to decide the right system for your devices. Total Phase can help you develop your embedded systems and can also help advise you on how to keep them running properly with the correct thermal management devices in place.