Heat Sinks

Written by Kevin Tavolaro
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Thermal management, which refers to the control of heat levels within a system, is made possible by the use of devices known as heat sinks. An electric device's reliability, performance rate, and overall lifespan are directly related to heat levels, and the regulation of these levels is essential. If heat levels are kept to a minimum, well under the amount noted by the device designers, the reliability and lifespan of the device increases proportionately. Likewise, by exceeding the recommended levels, a device is in danger of malfunctioning.

Heat sinks are synthetic devices utilized to aid in the dissipation of heat. They are almost always found in electric circuits, and often look like nothing more than a small, flat piece of metal, extending from the circuit board and intersecting a small metal "fin." As heat is generated in the circuit board, it is absorbed by the heat sink, which it travels though en route to the fin, which disperses it out into the air. As a result, the intense surface temperature coming from the heat generating component is dissipated into a cooling ambient, such as the air.

Heat Sinks and Dissipation

Dissipation occurs with heat sinks because the flat piece of metal and the fin alter the distribution of heat across the surface of the device. Because the surrounding air acts as an ambient coolant to the heat inside the device, the heat sink, by extending beyond the device, increases the amount of surface that is in contact with the cooling air. As a result, the barriers that would contain the heat within the device, rapidly accelerating the temperature, are lowered as the high temperature is decreased by contact with the cooling surface.

Because heat can be potentially so damaging to circuitry, the reliability of the heat sink is very important to the integrity of the device itself. In some cases, a special temporary heat sink is installed for a specific purpose. For example, if a circuit board was opened and being worked on with a soldering gun, the heat emitted by the gun would cause the overall temperature climb to be too high, which could easily damage the entire device. The temporary heat sink would be large enough to absorb the amount of heat generated by the gun, and safely disperse it.


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