(Image credit: Illustration by Kevin Craft) (Image credit: Illustration by Kevin Craft)

How can we design electronic devices that don’t overheat?

A new thermal transistor could help conduct heat away from delicate electronic components and also insulate them against chip and circuit failure.

The heat produced by electronic devices does more than annoy users. Heat-induced voids and cracking can cause chips and circuits to fail. A Stanford-led engineering team has developed a way to not only manage heat, but help route it away from delicate devices with a thermal transistor — a nanoscale switch that can conduct heat away from electronic components and insulate them against its damaging effects. Previous thermal transistors proved too big, too slow and not sensitive enough for practical use. Goodson’s team overcame these obstacles employing a molybdenum disulfide thin film.

“Developing a practical thermal transistor could be a game changer in how we design electronics,” said senior author Kenneth Goodson, a professor of mechanical engineering. “For the first time, however, a practical nanoscale thermal transistor is within reach.”

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Besides enabling dynamic heat control, the team’s results provide new insights into what causes lithium ion batteries to fail. As the porous materials in a battery are infused with lithium, they impede the flow of heat and can cause temperatures to shoot up. Thinking about this process is crucial to designing safer batteries. Tech Scouts interested in mobile device technology and electric cars should take a closer look.