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February 02, 2009— Boucherville, Quebec

Got a sluggish laptop that overheats? In a few years, laptop users may be able to manipulate files faster and longer without frying their legs, thanks to a metallic foam technology developed by NRC.

In 2001, researchers at the NRC Industrial Materials Institute (NRC-IMI) in Boucherville, Quebec, developed a novel process for making porous metallic foams with very low densities and high surface areas. Dominic Pilon, then a graduate student at NRC-IMI, noticed that the material was ideal for applications involving surface-exchange phenomena, such as heat exchangers, electrodes and battery components. With technical and financial help from the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), Pilon founded the Quebec-based company, Metafoam, which now licenses the technology from NRC.

"The NRC recipe involves mixing a metal powder, such as copper powder, with a polymer and foaming agent. You then cook this mixture as if you were baking bread to make metallic foam," says Vincent Guyaux, President and CEO of Metafoam. The idea is to use metallic foam in the cooling systems of laptops, desktops and servers.

Metafoam's copper foam wicking structures will soon be inside copper heat pipes (lower right) used in laptop computers.

Metafoam's copper foam wicking structures will soon be inside copper heat pipes (lower right) used in laptop computers.

"Many large computer companies are requesting better cooling performance especially because notebooks today are too hot," says Guyaux. "Heat build-up prevents companies from adding more high-speed processors, so it's limiting the evolution of computing power."

Today, desktop and laptop computers each contain a few tiny heat pipes, filled with water and a sintered metal powder wicking structure, which transfer heat from the processor to the cooling system. The heat from the processor boils the water and then the water vapour transfers the heat to the far end of the pipe, where it condenses back to water, transferring the heat to the cooling system. "To improve cooling efficiency, we've partnered with heat pipe manufacturers in Asia to produce heat pipes that contain our metallic foam wicking structures," explains Guyaux.

"In initial testing results, we're seeing a 30 to 50 percent increase in cooling performance compared to the current approach," he adds. "For manufacturers, this is significant. They see our technology as a good replacement for sintered powder wicks, which will allow them to prolong the life cycle of heat pipes in the computer industry."

In 2008, Metafoam representatives visited Asia and signed letters of intent with several manufacturers of computer cooling systems. With an estimated 450 million heat pipes produced around the world each year, the potential market for this technology is vast. "As a small firm, our plan is to focus on this application and generate revenues before we develop metallic foams for other potential applications such as water electrolysis, water treatment or fuel cell batteries," says Guyaux.

Today, NRC-IRAP continues to provide technical and financial assistance to Metafoam, while NRC-IMI supports Metafoam by providing access to expertise and tools, such as testing ovens. If all goes well, the company's metal foam wicking structures will be fully developed and ready for commercialization by 2010.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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