News & Views

Thermal Management Systems

June 29, 2023

As a Manufacturing Engineering company, we understand the importance of efficient thermal cooling in various industries. To assist engineers in making informed decisions, this guide will explore and compare different technologies and materials used for thermal cooling, including heat plates, heat sinks, heat pipes, oscillating heat pipes, vapor chambers, 3D vapor chambers, and liquid cooling. We will highlight their capabilities and limitations, considering factors such as thermal conductivity, performance, and suitability for specific applications.

Thermal management systems

Thermal solution assembly in digital thermal analysis software displaying temperature gradients under a simulated load.

Heat Plates (AKA “Cold Plates”)

Heat plates are indispensable for efficient thermal cooling in various applications where direct contact cooling is required. Unlike traditional cooling methods that rely on air or liquid, heat plates offer a direct interface between the heat source and the cooling medium, maximizing heat transfer efficiency. The purpose of heat plates is to provide a large surface area in direct contact with the heat-generating component, enabling rapid heat dissipation. Heat plates are typically made of materials with high thermal conductivity, such as copper or aluminum, to facilitate effective heat transfer. They help mitigate hotspots and reduce temperature differentials, ensuring optimal operating conditions and preventing thermal throttling. Heat plates find extensive use in electronic devices, power electronics, LED lighting, and other applications with high heat densities. Their ability to provide direct and efficient cooling enables improved performance, reliability, and longevity of critical components. With their compact size, customizable shapes, and compatibility with different cooling methods, heat plates play a vital role in thermal management and are an essential component of advanced cooling solutions.

Heat plates, despite their effectiveness in thermal cooling, come with certain limitations that should be taken into consideration. One limitation is the reliance on direct contact with the heat source. While this direct contact allows for efficient heat transfer, it also requires precise and consistent surface-to-surface contact to achieve optimal cooling performance. Any imperfections, such as uneven surfaces, air gaps, or inadequate thermal interface materials, can result in reduced heat transfer efficiency and potential hotspots. Additionally, heat plates have limited flexibility in terms of their shape and form factor. Their design is often specific to a particular application or heat source, making customization and compatibility challenging for diverse configurations. The size and weight of heat plates can also be a limitation, particularly in space-constrained environments or portable devices where compactness is essential. Furthermore, heat plates may not be suitable for applications where the heat source is non-planar or has irregular shapes, as achieving sufficient contact can be challenging. Despite these limitations, heat plates remain a valuable cooling solution in many applications, and their performance can be optimized through careful design, material selection, and proper installation techniques.

Heat Pipes

Heat pipes are essential for effective thermal cooling in numerous applications due to their ability to efficiently transfer heat. As electronic devices and systems continue to advance, the demand for high-performance cooling solutions becomes increasingly critical. Heat pipes provide an efficient and reliable method for dissipating heat by utilizing a closed-loop system filled with a working fluid. When heat is applied to one end of the heat pipe, the fluid vaporizes, and the resulting vapor travels to the cooler end of the pipe, where it condenses and releases the latent heat. This phase change process enables heat pipes to transport thermal energy with minimal temperature gradients and thermal resistance, making them highly desirable in electronics, aerospace, power generation, and other industries where effective cooling is paramount. Heat pipes play a vital role in maintaining optimal operating temperatures, enhancing system reliability, and prolonging the lifespan of various devices and equipment.

Heat pipe

While heat pipes are widely regarded as efficient heat transfer solutions, they do have certain limitations that should be considered. Firstly, heat pipes rely on the presence of gravity to aid in the return of the condensed working fluid to the heat source. In applications where gravity is absent or not aligned properly, such as in space or in devices with non-vertical orientations, additional measures like wick structures or pumps may be required to ensure proper functioning. Secondly, heat pipes are sensitive to external factors such as temperature gradients, vibrations, and mechanical stresses. Extreme temperature variations or excessive vibrations can disrupt the capillary action within the heat pipe, affecting its overall performance. Furthermore, heat pipes have limitations in terms of maximum heat flux they can handle, which is typically lower compared to other cooling methods like liquid cooling. Lastly, the thermal conductivity of the materials used in heat pipes can impose limitations on their effectiveness, particularly in situations where high heat transfer rates are required. Despite these limitations, heat pipes remain highly effective in many applications and offer substantial benefits in thermal management. Proper understanding of their limitations and careful consideration of the specific application's requirements are essential for successful implementation.

Oscillating Heat Pipes

Oscillating heat pipes (OHPs) are an innovative and crucial solution for thermal cooling in diverse applications where conventional heat transfer methods fall short. OHPs address the challenges of heat dissipation by utilizing the thermodynamic characteristics of a working fluid to achieve efficient thermal transport. Unlike traditional heat pipes, OHPs employ capillary action and oscillatory motion to enhance heat transfer. The inherent oscillation within the pipe promotes mixing of the fluid and generates high heat transfer rates. This makes OHPs particularly effective in situations where gravity-driven heat transfer is limited or when there are spatial constraints. The need for OHPs arises in compact electronic devices, high-power electronics, aerospace applications, and other scenarios where efficient thermal management is essential. OHPs offer a versatile and reliable solution, ensuring optimal cooling performance, mitigating hotspots, and maintaining the integrity and longevity of critical systems.

While oscillating heat pipes (OHPs) offer unique advantages in thermal cooling, they also come with certain limitations. One limitation is the dependence of OHPs on gravity for proper operation. The oscillatory motion and circulation of the working fluid within the pipe rely on gravity to establish the necessary flow patterns. In situations where gravity is absent or significantly reduced, such as in space or in certain orientations, the performance of OHPs may be compromised unless additional mechanisms, such as grooves or external forces, are employed. Another limitation is the potential for fluid entrainment and blockage within the OHP. Due to the oscillatory motion, there is a risk of fluid trapping or vapor locking, hindering the proper flow of the working fluid and reducing heat transfer efficiency. Additionally, the complex internal structure of OHPs can pose challenges during manufacturing, leading to potential defects or variations in performance. Lastly, OHPs may exhibit limitations in terms of heat flux capacity and overall thermal resistance compared to other cooling methods, which can impact their suitability for high-power applications. Despite these limitations, OHPs remain valuable in various scenarios where their unique capabilities and advantages outweigh the drawbacks, making them an important tool in thermal management for specific applications.

Heat Sinks

Heat sinks are indispensable components in thermal cooling systems, serving the crucial purpose of dissipating excess heat generated by electronic devices and other heat-producing components. As technology advances and device sizes shrink, the power density and thermal loads continue to rise, making efficient heat dissipation vital. Heat sinks facilitate this process by providing a large surface area that enables effective heat transfer from the heat source to the surrounding environment. By utilizing materials with high thermal conductivity, such as aluminum or copper, heat sinks efficiently conduct and distribute heat away from the source, preventing overheating and ensuring optimal performance and reliability. Heat sinks are widely employed in various applications, including computers, mobile devices, power electronics, and automotive systems, where the dissipation of heat is essential for maintaining safe operating temperatures and extending the lifespan of critical components. With their ability to enhance heat dissipation and prevent thermal throttling, heat sinks are indispensable for effective thermal management and ensuring the long-term functionality and durability of modern electronic systems.

Heat sink

Heat sinks, while widely used for thermal cooling, have certain limitations that need to be considered. One significant limitation is the reliance on ambient air for heat dissipation. Heat sinks operate by transferring heat from the heat-generating component to the surrounding air through convection. Therefore, their effectiveness is highly dependent on the availability of cool air and proper ventilation. In environments with limited airflow or high ambient temperatures, heat sinks may struggle to adequately dissipate heat, leading to increased operating temperatures and potential thermal throttling. Another limitation is the contact resistance between the heat sink and the component it is cooling. Even with thermal interface materials, there can be imperfect contact and increased thermal resistance, which can hinder efficient heat transfer. Heat sinks are also constrained by their size and form factor, which can limit their compatibility with smaller and more densely packed electronic devices. Additionally, heat sinks alone may not be sufficient to handle extremely high-power densities or transient heat loads, requiring supplementary cooling methods in such cases. Despite these limitations, heat sinks remain a popular and effective cooling solution in many applications, and their performance can be optimized through proper design, airflow management, and thermal interface materials.

Vapor Chambers

Vapor chambers have emerged as a vital solution for thermal cooling in numerous high-performance applications. These advanced heat transfer devices offer significant advantages over traditional cooling methods, particularly in scenarios where heat sources are concentrated or have irregular shapes. Vapor chambers consist of a flat sealed chamber filled with a working fluid that undergoes phase change to facilitate efficient heat transfer. The heat source applied to one end of the chamber evaporates the fluid, which travels to the cooler regions, condenses, and releases the latent heat. This process allows vapor chambers to spread heat evenly across their surfaces, enabling efficient and uniform heat dissipation. The large surface area and high thermal conductivity of vapor chambers contribute to their effectiveness in reducing temperature gradients and hotspots, ensuring stable operating conditions for sensitive components. Vapor chambers find widespread use in electronics, LED lighting, power modules, and other applications requiring enhanced thermal management. By providing improved heat spreading, thermal efficiency, and thermal stability, vapor chambers play a pivotal role in optimizing performance, reliability, and longevity of advanced systems.

Vapor chamber

Vapor chambers, while offering advanced thermal cooling capabilities, have certain limitations to consider. One significant limitation is their relatively high cost compared to other cooling solutions. The complex manufacturing process and specialized materials involved in creating vapor chambers contribute to their higher price point, making them less accessible for cost-sensitive applications. Additionally, vapor chambers have a finite heat transfer capacity. If the heat load exceeds the design limits of the vapor chamber, it can result in reduced performance or even failure to effectively dissipate heat. The design and geometry of the vapor chamber are critical to ensure optimal heat spreading, and deviations from the intended orientation or improper installation can negatively impact its performance. Moreover, vapor chambers are susceptible to damage from external factors such as mechanical stress, impact, or corrosion, which can compromise their structural integrity and thermal performance. Finally, the size and weight of vapor chambers can limit their suitability for smaller and lightweight electronic devices. Despite these limitations, vapor chambers offer excellent heat spreading capabilities, reduced thermal resistance, and enhanced cooling efficiency, making them valuable in applications where high thermal loads and performance are paramount.

3D Vapor Chambers

The emergence of 3D vapor chambers has revolutionized thermal cooling by addressing the increasing demands of modern electronic devices for efficient heat dissipation in compact spaces. Traditional vapor chambers are designed with a flat profile, but 3D vapor chambers take cooling to the next level by incorporating intricate three-dimensional structures. These chambers utilize advanced manufacturing techniques to create complex internal geometries that enhance heat transfer and maximize surface area. By leveraging these three-dimensional configurations, 3D vapor chambers can effectively dissipate heat from densely packed components, irregularly shaped heat sources, and confined spaces. This innovative approach to thermal cooling offers superior heat spreading and dissipation capabilities, minimizing temperature gradients and hotspots. The enhanced thermal efficiency and performance of 3D vapor chambers make them indispensable in high-power electronics, gaming systems, data centers, and other applications where space constraints and thermal management challenges are prevalent. 3D vapor chambers provide an optimized cooling solution, ensuring reliable operation, preventing overheating, and extending the lifespan of critical electronic components in the ever-evolving landscape of technology.

3D vapor chamber

3D vapor chambers, despite their advanced thermal cooling capabilities, also come with certain limitations. One key limitation is the complexity and cost associated with their manufacturing process. The intricate three-dimensional structures of these chambers require precise manufacturing techniques, which can result in higher production costs compared to traditional vapor chambers. The design and fabrication of 3D vapor chambers can be challenging, especially when intricate internal geometries are involved, making them less accessible for cost-sensitive applications. Additionally, the three-dimensional nature of these vapor chambers may pose limitations in terms of compatibility and integration with existing systems or devices. Their unique geometries may require specific design considerations and customization, potentially limiting their use in certain applications with space constraints or standardized cooling solutions. Furthermore, the heat transfer performance of 3D vapor chambers can be influenced by factors such as fluid flow patterns, surface roughness, and temperature gradients within the complex internal structures. These factors may introduce additional thermal resistance and impact the overall effectiveness of heat dissipation. Despite these limitations, 3D vapor chambers offer significant advantages in terms of heat spreading, dissipation, and thermal management, making them a valuable solution for applications where efficient cooling in compact spaces is critical.

Liquid Cooling

Liquid cooling has become a crucial necessity for effective thermal management in various applications, especially in high-performance systems with demanding heat dissipation requirements. As electronic devices continue to shrink in size while delivering increased processing power, the need for efficient cooling methods becomes paramount. Liquid cooling offers several advantages over traditional air cooling solutions. By utilizing a liquid coolant, such as water or specialized cooling fluids, heat can be efficiently transported away from heat-generating components. Liquid cooling systems can effectively dissipate higher heat loads and reduce temperature differentials, resulting in improved overall system performance and reliability. Liquid's higher heat capacity and thermal conductivity allow for faster and more efficient heat transfer, minimizing hotspots and maintaining stable operating temperatures. Liquid cooling is particularly valuable in applications such as gaming PCs, data centers, high-performance computing, and overclocked systems, where heat-intensive tasks demand robust cooling solutions. Liquid cooling systems can be customized to fit various form factors and can be integrated into both air and liquid cooling setups. As technology advances and heat challenges become more complex, liquid cooling remains a vital solution to ensure optimal performance, extend component lifespan, and mitigate thermal limitations.

liquid cooling

While liquid cooling offers significant advantages in thermal management, it also comes with certain limitations that should be considered. One limitation is the increased complexity and cost compared to air cooling solutions. Liquid cooling systems require additional components such as pumps, tubing, and radiators, which can add complexity to the setup and increase the overall cost of implementation. Maintenance and potential leakage issues are also factors that need to be addressed in liquid cooling systems. Regular maintenance, such as checking coolant levels, monitoring for leaks, and ensuring proper circulation, is necessary to maintain the system's effectiveness and prevent potential damage. Furthermore, liquid cooling systems require proper planning and installation to ensure compatibility with specific hardware configurations. Factors such as component clearance, radiator placement, and tubing routing must be carefully considered to avoid compatibility issues and ensure efficient heat transfer. Additionally, the physical size of liquid cooling systems can be a limitation, particularly in smaller form factor devices where space is limited. Lastly, while liquid cooling is highly efficient at dissipating heat, the overall effectiveness can be influenced by factors such as ambient temperature, coolant flow rate, and the effectiveness of the radiator in transferring heat to the surrounding environment. Despite these limitations, liquid cooling remains a powerful solution for managing high heat loads in demanding applications, providing superior thermal performance and enabling overclocking capabilities when implemented correctly.

Comparing Cooling Materials and Technologies

a. Materials

Depending on the application, size, and costs, certain materials may be better suited to achieve proper component cooling. Thermal conductivity is a measure of a material's ability to conduct heat. Here is a comparison of the thermal conductivity of some commonly used materials:

It's important to note that the values provided are approximate and can vary depending on factors such as temperature, material purity, and specific composition. When selecting a material for thermal cooling purposes, considering its thermal conductivity is essential to ensure efficient heat transfer and optimal thermal management.

b. Cooling Technologies

The thermal conductivity of different thermal cooling technologies can vary significantly. Many factors are taken into account when determining which technologies should be utilized and many will be used in conjunction with each other.

Complete thermal solution

The thermal conductivity values provided are general ranges and can vary depending on specific designs, materials, and manufacturing processes. These values serve as a rough comparison to understand the relative thermal conductivity capabilities of the different cooling technologies. The specific thermal conductivities mentioned here are approximate values and can vary depending on factors such as temperature, pressure, and the specific formulation of the coolant used in the liquid cooling system.


Choosing the right thermal cooling technology is crucial for maintaining optimal operating conditions in engineering applications. By understanding the capabilities and limitations of different technologies engineers can make informed decisions that align with their specific needs. Consideration of thermal conductivity, performance, cost, and other relevant factors will lead to efficient and effective thermal cooling solutions. In most cases, designs will incorporate many combinations of different technologies and materials to achieve the desired thermal cooling result. Our team at SJS Products, a Jamcor Corporation, would love the opportunity to discuss your thermal cooling needs and create a plan around your component requirements.

Complete thermal solution

Expanded view of a complete thermal solution including heat pipes, heat sinks, heat plates, and vapor chambers.

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