The use of cooling systems is prominent in many aspects of our day to day lives, we’re just not really aware of it! We need to cool lots of everyday things down in order for them to work properly. For example, our cars use water (usually mixed with antifreeze) to cool the engine.
To explain on a very basic level, as cool water is passed through a hot car engine, the heat is transferred to the water. That heat is then dissipated out of the water via the car’s radiator, which means cool water returns back to the engine and thus the cycle continues.
Therefore, this cooling process in a car helps to regulate the temperature of the engine and prevent it from overheating (and failing). Just like our cars, our data storage devices need to be kept within an optimal temperature range too before components start to fail.
Ever wondered why your laptop gets hot on your lap or your phone gets hot in your hands? Let’s take a look at why devices warm up and the ways they can be cooled down.
Keeping your devices cool
Without going into the actual physics, electronic devices work by moving electricity throughout the device, which in turn creates heat. If devices are not appropriately cooled this can cause performance problems and damage to the internal components, which can stop the device from working and/or prevent you from accessing your data.
When it comes to data storage technologies, there are a few different ways that you can cool devices down and keep them running at an optimal temperature. To pick out a couple, the more traditional way to do this is via a fan inside the device, which generates airflow and keeps parts cool during operation.
Fans are small and fairly inexpensive, which is why you’ll find them on most everyday devices like PCs, laptops and games consoles. You’ve probably heard it whirring away every now and again when you’ve had your device on for a while.
Many devices also use what is called a heat sink, which is basically a piece of metal attached to a computer component that is prone to increased temperatures (like a processor or graphics card). The metal conducts the heat onto a larger surface area, which is then pushed out of an air vent by a fan.
Liquid cooled devices
Liquid cooling systems are much more efficient than air cooling ones. This uses the same principle as the car; liquid is passed by a component in order to reduce the temperature and transfer the heat out.
We say ‘liquid’, as you don’t have to just use water like in a car. It’s possible to use liquid helium or nitrogen instead, however the cost and risk associated with maintaining and storing such systems make them somewhat excessive for the majority of computing applications. Plus we don’t all have liquid helium just lying around!
You might be thinking that liquid and electricity don’t mix… well you’re correct (obviously!). There’s always a chance that things can go wrong and components can break, which could cause liquid damage to the hardware that is using the cooling system.
However, when it is done correctly, liquid cooling can be used in many situations, particularly in high-end systems such as top-spec gaming computers, data centres or mainframe computers – wherever there is a large amount of processing is taking place.
High-end computing applications
Building a DIY liquid cooled system for a home gaming PC isn’t actually that hard, however the complexity of cooling really starts to present itself when you look into the world of the data centre or a supercomputer.
Due to the amount of devices operating very close to each other, data centres will often have complex cooling systems in order to maintain an optimal temperature and avoid hardware failures.
However, there are situations where all this needs to be taken one step further. For example, Google has recently introduced liquid cooling for AI data processing, which comprises of passing the liquid directly to the processor chips themselves, rather than around the component as a whole or by simply passing air over it.
Why isn’t my phone liquid cooled?
“Hey, if it works for computers…” – Marcus Ren
So how does your phone keep cool, and is it not worth just liquid cooling that too? Is it even possible?
Our phones can become noticeably warm for a number of different reasons, one of them being due to the increased demand on the processor when you’re doing something like using Google Maps for directions or streaming a video from YouTube. More processing power requires more energy, and more energy equals more heat as a by-product.
Your phone heating up is nothing to worry about in most cases, and due to the way modern phones are made, it will usually cool down by itself fairly quickly when it returns to normal conditions. Due to the complexity and the small space in which you’d need to fit it, you wouldn’t usually put liquid cooling on a phone, however…
Earlier in 2018 the manufacturer Xiaomi released a phone specifically for gaming, which does actually contain a water cooling system! It’s the first phone to use this type of feature, which helps to avoid overheating as a result of prolonged usage and keeps users happily gaming away.
We’d be very surprised if this kind of technology was in the next iPhone release, but it goes to show the types of application that this technology can be used in.
With devices becoming more and more powerful in terms of processing speed, some form of liquid cooling might just be the way to maintain the devices of the future, even our phones!
Mikey has been with Ontrack for 6 years and is the Partner Program Manager, based out of the Epsom, UK office. He is a regular contributor to the Ontrack blog, usually writing about how different types of data storage technologies work. Outside of work you’ll find him either with a guitar in his hands or learning about rocket science.