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Thermal Interface Material Basics for Electronic Engineers

Thermal Interface Material Basics for Electronic Engineers



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Clemens Lasance covers the basics of heat transfer to include conduction, convection, and resistance as well as the role of TIMs in Thermal Management. In addition, Lasance takes to task the terminology behind thermal impedance as shorthand for thermal resistance per unit area.
Clemens Lasance covers the basics of heat transfer to include conduction, convection, and resistance as well as the role of TIMs in Thermal Management. In addition, Lasance takes to task the terminology behind thermal impedance as shorthand for thermal resistance per unit area.

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Thermal Interface Material Basics for Electronic Engineers
Clemens J.M. LasancePhilips Research Laboratories, EmeritusEindhoven, the Netherlands
Basics of Heat Transfer
To understand the heat transfer properties of thermal interface materials (TIMs) we need to understandthe meaning of thermal conduction, convection and resistance.
The notion of thermal conduction is not very old. Biot (1804) and Fourier (1822) were the first toquantitatively study the heat flow through a piece of solid material. Fourier observed that the heat flow
was proportional to the temperature difference
over the test piece, proportional to the crosssectional area A of the bar, and inversely proportional to the length or thickness
, known as Fourier’s
(1)The proportionality constant k is called the
thermal conductivit
in W/mK. It is a material property and ameasure for the ability of a material to conduct heat. The range for engineering materials is from air(0.03W/mK), via plastics (0.2 W/mK), glass (1 W/mK), aluminium (200 W/mK) to copper (400 W/mK).Typical TIM values cover the range 0.4-4 W/mK.
The heat generated in an electronic device is usually transported by conduction to a heat sink or an areawhere the heat is transferred to a fluid which is called convection. The fluid can be a gas such as air, or a
‘real’ fluid such as water.
As a result, the convection heat is proportional to the area A and thetemperature difference between the wall and the main stream flow:
(2)This equation is commonly known as
“Newton’s Cooling L
; however, it should be realized that it isneither a law nor was it derived by Newton. In this equation, the proportionality coefficient
is calledthe
heat transfer coefficient 
in W/m
K. As a rule-of-thumb, take for natural convection h=10 W/m
K andfor fan-driven forced convection h=50 W/m
The last term to discuss shortly is the
thermal resistance
. In a DC electrical circuit, Ohm’s law describes
the relations between the voltages and the currents. It states that a voltage difference over a resistorcauses an electrical current, which is proportional to the voltage difference:
V = I * R.In steady state heat transfer, a temperature difference causes a heat flow which is proportional to thetemperature difference as is seen in equations (1,2). Both equations can be written in the form
T = q *R
, with R
the thermal resistance (also commonly noted as R when there is no chance for misreading it
as an electrical resistance). This is analogous to Ohm’s law. In both the electrical and the thermal case
we observe that a driving force exists (either voltage difference or temperature difference), whichcauses a flow (of current, or of heat) over a resistor.
 In general, we can write the following equation for the thermal resistance in K/W:
q R
 The thermal resistance for conduction is:
kA R
 The thermal resistance for convection is:
hA R
thermal resistance per unit area
is equal to the ratio between thickness t and thermal conductivityk and is often used to allow for a direct comparison of the heat transfer performance of commerciallyavailable TIMs.
The Role of TIMs in Thermal Management
Heat dissipation of semiconductor packages has become one of the limiting factors in miniaturization.The thermal budget consists of three parts: 1) the thermal resistance of the package itself, 2) theconvective heat transfer to the outside world (to be improved by better heat sinks, higher air velocitiesand/or liquid cooling), and 3) the thermal interface resistance that is defined as the sum of the thermalresistance of the interface material plus both contact resistances.
Figure 1 Sketch of interface between two materials
Figure 1 shows a TIM between two materials, and it is clear that the effective thermal resistance consistsof the TIM plus two contact resistances. The effective material thickness is called the
bond line thickness
 (BLT). The problem in a nutshell is that in high-performance applications the interface thermalresistance can easily account for 80% of the allowed total resistance. Hence, to enable an optimal choicethe thermal performance of TIMs should be known with certain accuracy. The main problem is the often
unknown contact resistance. Measurements are in fact the only choice because no theory exists thatpredicts the value with the required accuracy despite serious progress in the science of contactresistance.
Problems Related to TIM Specifications
Ref [1, 2] discusses the main problem with TIM characterization: the often significant differencebetween standard tests performed by TIM manufacturers and real-life tests. It is instructive tosummarize the parameters that are application-specific and may influence the thermal behaviour of theTIM in the final product.In factory assembly applications, the inability to measure the thickness and actual TIM materialquantity applied with materials such as thermal greases,Flatness and surface conditions of both heat sink and component,Pressure applied. The current ASTM D5470-01 standard prescribes a pressure of 3 MPa, far abovewhat is used in practice (0.1 MPa) (in the next revision the standard will permit for lower pressuretesting),Clip clamping force or screw torque,Clip installation,Time-dependent phenomena, e.g. reduction in clamping force, warpage, ageing of TIM, pump-out of silicones or other fluids or carrier constituents,Non-uniform surface heating,Thermocouple placement. The best but also most difficult method is to measure the casetemperature of the package at the hottest spot,Presence of manufacturing machining oils, solvents, washing agents, plastic injection moldingrelease agents, or other contaminants present on volume-manufactured components,Problems increase with higher thermal conductivity (the future direction), because the influence of the contact resistances becomes larger.The conclusion is that it is very difficult or even impossible to reproduce
contact resistancesin a standardized test method, for the simple reason that the vendor cannot possibly know what theapplication will be. However, the conclusion should not be that henceforth the standard test should notbe performed. After all, the vendors are responsible for the characterization of their materials, whichshould include information of some reproducible contact resistance. It is the responsibility of the user toaddress the application-specific contact resistance issue.
vendor data should be interpreted as the
value a customer can possibly acquire,given a certain pressure.
In a paper from 2005, Maguire et al. [3] did a series of tests with a high-power amplifier on an extrudedheat sink and demonstrated clearly the huge differences between vendor data and field data. Greases,gap pads, PCMs and some homemade compounds were compared. The vendor data and the field testsshowed differences of a factor of two. Even the ranking was different. In all cases, the vendor dataunderestimated the real-life interface resistance.

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