Intel dives into the future of cooling

immersion cooling

Intel has announced that it is working with the liquid cooling industry – from tank vendors to fluid providers to its own labs – to create innovative solutions where computing components are in direct contact with a heat-conducting fluid.

Over the past decade, Intel estimates it has saved 1,000 terawatt hours of electricity through the improvements its engineers have made to their processors. These advances are complemented by cooling technologies – fans, in-door coolers, direct-to-chip cooling – that further manage heat, conserve energy and reduce carbon emissions.

However, these cooling features require up to 40 per cent of a data centre’s energy consumption. As Intel looks to increase performance in the future, improvements need to be accomplished in an energy-efficient way, and air cooling may not be the solution.

Immersion cooling, therefore, is part of Intel’s net-zero commitment. As much as 99 per cent of heat generated by IT equipment can be captured in the form of water or another liquid coolant. Instead of requiring fans, the heat passes into the fluid, which is then circulated to dissipate the energy, much like an air conditioning system. That heat can even be harnessed and reused as needed.

Among the solutions they are looking at are 3D vapor chambers (sealed, flat metal pockets filled with fluid) to spread the boiling capacity using minimal space and improved boiling enhancement coatings, which reduce thermal resistance by promoting high nucleation site density (where bubbles of steam form on a metal surface).

Another approach Intel researchers are pursuing uses arrays of fluid jets to cool the highest-power devices. Unlike typical heat sinks or traditional cold plates that pass fluid over a surface, the cooling jets route fluid directly at the surface. The thermal lid that contains the jets can be attached directly to the top of a standard lidded package, eliminating thermal interface material and reducing thermal resistance. With multi-chip modules becoming increasingly difficult to cool, this technology can be customized for each construction and can target hot spots effectively, enabling the processor to run at a lower temperature with a five to seven per cent increase in performance for the same power. 

“Immersion cooling is a disruptive technology,” said Jen Huffstetler, chief product sustainability officer in Intel’s Data Center and AI Group (DCAI). “This technology not only addresses some of the largest data centre challenges – by reducing energy and water usage – it also helps our customers improve TCO (total cost of ownership) while improving overall compute density.”

Disruptive solutions need to be innovative, but also market-ready, executable and testable. Intel said that it will partner with startups and academic leaders on these technologies, with the goal of developing open solutions over the next five years that Intel – and the world – can use to reduce the energy footprint of data centres.

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