A few years ago, while doing research on various coating materials to improve mechanical wear resistance, the company’s founders made a materials processing breakthrough by being able to grow nano-scale aluminium oxide crystals directly onto any aluminium substrate, effectively building an atomically bonded dielectric ceramic layer with precise thickness control to sub-micron tolerances (which allows the company to tune the isolation breakdown voltage up to several thousands of volts).
At less than 0.02°Ccm2/W, the aluminium oxide’s thermal resistance makes it an excellent material for heat sinking, while its dielectric constant of 9.5 to 10 is on par with that of aluminium nitride, the expensive and hard to process ceramic substrate typically used in high power LED applications.
“The key cost savings and heat-dissipation improvements come from the fact that power components and LEDs can be directly mounted onto circuit tracks sputtered or screen printed over the dielectric layer, which itself is a natural extension of the heat sink”, said Vice President of product development, Steven Curtis in an interview with eeNews Europe.
“This eliminates the intermediate metal-backed PCBs or the AlN ceramic tiles that would then be bonded through a thermally conductive gap filler to the heat sink”, added Curtis who was in Paris to receive the 2013 European Thermal Management Solutions for LED Lighting Technology Innovation Award from Frost & Sullivan. What’s more, the setup costs for manufacture are much cheaper than with aluminium nitride ceramic substrates, which require special tooling to cut and drill through the ceramic.
According to market analyst firm Lux Research, thermal management materials for LEDs and power electronics will more than double from $1.8 billion in 2013 to be a $4.8 billion market in 2020 forecasts. Because his technology is scalable, Curtis hopes Cambridge Nanotherm will take a big chunk of this market by offering heat-sinking solutions that are 25 to 50% more cost efficient than competing alternatives, and by enabling more power to be dissipated into smaller designs. This could be to run LEDs cooler with higher reliability or to increase light output without having to increase the heat sink.
The company is currently building its first prototype manufacturing plant in Haverhill, UK, with a capacity to coat 12×18-inch substrates. “We already have firm engagements with several LED lighting manufacturers and those will already fill about 50% of our capacity when the plant will be fully operational by the end of this year”, commented Keith McDonald, Cambridge Nanotherm’s recently appointed Sales & Marketing Director.“
A typical PCB-on-heat-sink assembly versus Nanotherm’s direct circuit on heat-sink.
The company plans to offer coating services for third parties or readily coated heat sinks and aluminium sheets, but in the future, it is also looking at increasing its capacity or licensing its technology to address the needs of DC/DC power supplies. This new coating process could also be used for the design of more efficient thermoelectric modules, to manufacture isolated aluminium electronics enclosures, or for bare aluminium-based connectors (with uncoated contacts).
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