How One Startup’s Cooling Chip May Surge Processor Power
Seeing a disconnect between modern processors and outdated coolers, Frore Systems designed a thermal management solution to let chips run to their true potential.
Looking for a replacement for decades-old cooling technology, Frore Systems is developing a new contender in the active chip cooling market. As much as engineers strive for 100% efficiency, electrical devices inevitably generate some heat. Thermal management becomes an even higher concern as chips become faster, denser, and more powerful.
Traditional mechanical solutions such as fans or heat pipes transport heat and generate airflow (or liquid flow) that can absorb and move heat away from the chip, releasing it into the outside world. These bulky solutions occupy a large surface area, making efficient cooling challenging for compact designs such as laptops or tablets.
Frore Systems intends for its flagship chip cooler, the AirJet, to revolutionize the chip cooling industry by making thermal management solutions thinner. Image used courtesy of Frore Systems
Now, Frore Systems is blazing a trail for compact cooling solutions in a way that has attracted the attention of two of the biggest names in high-performance computing: Intel and Qualcomm.
Modern Processors Can't Take the Heat
The biggest bottleneck in modern computing is not a lack of computing power in the processor but rather a surplus. As processors become faster and more densely integrated, more power is lost to heat. If no cooling is provided, the chip's temperature can quickly rise and, in extreme cases, cause damage beyond repair. If some level of cooling is provided, such as a mounted fan to blow air over the chip, the temperature can be moderately controlled.
Even in the best of cases, an unchecked processor can quickly damage itself under heavy loads. Manufacturers typically include thermal throttling in their devices. Upon reaching a critical temperature, the processor will reduce its performance to prolong its life and avoid wasting computational resources. In a larger setting, advanced cooling techniques can often assist in extracting maximum performance. However, this can be an especially tough problem to solve in mobile computing devices, where space is often limited.
The example AirJet system shows the cool air entering through top slots and hot air exiting the exhaust after being pushed over the chip using piezoelectric crystals. Image used courtesy of Frore Systems
Dr. Surya P. Ganti and Dr. Seshu Madhavapeddy, who both previously worked at Qualcomm, founded Frore Systems to solve this problem. Hoping to pioneer the next generation of processor cooling, the pair used their respective backgrounds in the semiconductor industry to ultimately invent the AirJet, a new method for active chip cooling.
The First "Solid-state Thermal Solution"
Frore Systems’ AirJet Mini and AirJet Pro are described as the first “solid-state thermal solution.” Despite the “solid-state” claim, these coolers do have moving parts in the form of vibrating membranes surrounding an air cavity that help to push air through the cavity and across the chip.
The AirJet product relies on the piezoelectric effect, which involves mechanical stress and electricity. If a piezoelectric crystal is bent, electricity is generated. Conversely, the crystal will deform if a voltage is applied. By cleverly applying a voltage across the crystal, the membrane inside the device is actuated, creating pulsating jets of air that are pushed across the chip and provide active air cooling.
A cross-section of an AirJet module highlights the effects of the piezoelectric crystals. By deforming the crystals, pressure is generated, which can pull cool air in and push hot air out. Image used courtesy of Frore Systems
What makes the AirJet special is not that it can cool the chip but rather that it can cool the chip in an unbelievably small form factor. Both the AirJet Mini and AirJet Pro have a total height of only 2.8 mm with a max weight of 22 g, making them extremely versatile and low-profile coolers for even the thinnest of devices. The AirJet datasheets report a power dissipation of 5.25 W and 10.5 W using the AirJet Mini and Pro, respectively.
Partnerships with Frore
Although AirJet chips have yet to be shipped (expected Q1 2023), they could mark the beginning of a major surge in computational power if they can live up to Frore Systems’ claims. Even though the project is still in its youth, Frore has already received support from both Qualcomm and Intel. Qualcomm’s $100 million investment combined with Intel’s support as a customer puts Frore in a good position to make the most out of their next-gen chip coolers. Interested parties can keep an eye out for future Intel Evo systems that include AirJet cooling.
Regardless of the commercial results of the AirJet, Frore Systems has shown that thermal computation efficiency, despite its reliance on older technology, is still an important topic in the high-performance computing world.