THE STUFF THAT MAKES YOUR STUFF WORK: Heat Sink

There are two things you need to know about your electronic devices that will explain a lot of their behavior.

  1. Heat is a natural byproduct of inefficient designs.
  2. It’s very expensive to create an efficient design.

Let me try to explain in a way that doesn’t make me sound completely insane. A computer is like a little maze that electricity runs through. As it does, it goes in different directions depending on electronic switches that are thrown, and those switches are thrown by the programs you run and the choices you make. Unfortunately, not all the electricity makes it from one end of the maze to the other. As it travels through wires it loses little bits of energy along the way. This energy is released as heat. The further you ask that electricity to go, the more energy is lost and the more heat is generated. If you ask for a lot of calculations, a lot of distance is covered and a lot of heat is generated.

It’s impossible to stop this heat generation but it is possible to control it. You can use more expensive materials, more precise manufacturing technologies and you can put your components closer together. You can work hard to optimize every process so that it is faster and takes fewer steps. Unfortunately, all of that takes money. Engineers cost money, creating better designs takes time, and better manufacturing techniques mean new factories that cost tons of money.

So, in order to keep costs down and get products to market on time, a certain amount of energy loss due to heat is just expected. Put it this way, chips run hot, we live with it.

This is how we live with it:

A passive heat sink like this one draws heat from a computer chip. It sits on top of the chip and because it’s made of a material that conducts heat very well, the heat passes into the heat sink. From there, it dissipates. The design of the heat sink creates a lot of surface area, a lot of space for the heat to spread out into open air. This keeps the chip cool and makes it last longer. It’s a cheap alternative to designing a chip to run cooler on its own.

I’m not saying a heat sink is a sign of bad industrial design. Often times you’ll see heat sinks on the fastest, most powerful, next-gen stuff because it’s just not possible to engineer it to run cooler… yet. That said a heat sink often makes a product larger and heavier and a lot of the miniaturization that comes with newer products is often a result of removing them.

So, sort of a love/hate relationship with the heat sink. Sure, they keep the really good stuff cool, but they are really a tiny little monument to wasted electricity. If only there were a way to make a computer run on its own wasted heat… Oh well.