Boulder startup licenses CU tech to reduce heat in electronics

BOULDER — Startup firm Kelvin Thermal Technologies Inc. in Boulder will begin developing and marketing ways to reduce the heat created by electronics that could lead to ultra-thin and flexible smartphones and wearable electronics.

Kelvin Thermal, founded by University of Colorado professors Y.C Lee and Ronggui Yang, signed a licensing agreement with CU-Boulder’s Technology Transfer Office to commercialize research conducted by a group led by Lee at CU.

The technology also could also be used for other commercial and military systems, Lee said.

Lee, a professor of CU-Boulder’s mechanical engineering department and president of Kelvin Thermal, said current thermal-management solutions are a limiting factor in the thickness and flexibility of smartphones and wearable electronics. Heat is a major constraint in the design of new systems, since it affects not only the reliability of a system, but also its surface temperature, energy consumption and battery life.

The research group developed an ultra-thin, flexible thermal “ground plane.” The ground plane is a flat, heat-transfer device as thin as a credit card that can be mounted on electronic devices — a new approach to thermal management that replaces conventional materials like graphite, copper and aluminum used to remove heat from devices, Lee said.

The thermal ground plane is at least three times as efficient as graphite and 10 times as efficient as copper. Another important advantage of the technology is its ultra-thin profile, taking up less space in smartphones and other small systems, Lee said. In addition, the device is flexible, a necessity for the development of flexible smartphones and wearable devices.

“Hot areas on consumer products such as smartphones and tablets are not only annoying to the consumer, they can also decrease performance,” Lee said. “Flexible thermal ground planes passively maintain comfortable skin temperatures without the use of fans and other temperature-control techniques used in larger systems.”

“In addition to consumer electronics, our thermal ground planes will also have applications like more efficient cooling systems for power plants and temperature control of building and vehicles,” said Yang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and treasurer of the company. Lee and Yang incorporated Kelvin Thermal Technologies in June. Allen Duck is the company’s chief executive.

“The Kelvin Thermal approach to heat transfer and thermal management offers design teams opportunities to create thinner, smaller more efficient electronics systems,” Duck said in a prepared statement. “In creative hands it becomes a game-changing technology.”

Lee’s research group used funding from the U.S. Department of Defense under its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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