In a finding that could well revolutionize cooling technology as we know it, researchers at Oregon State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have discovered a way to achieve near-optimal heat dissipation by applying a nanostructured coating. Because of performance, versatility and economy of materials used, their method could soon lead to better electronics, heating and air conditioning.

We've recently discussed the importance of heat dissipation in electronics; however, while cooling laptops and the likes is an important issue in itself, they are by no means the only area that could benefit from better heat dissipation. The team's work focuses on heat transfer using water in particular and could be used in heating, cooling and air conditioning applications as well as keeping your lap from burning up the next time you check your email at the airport.

The advances claimed by the team are quite significant: achieving heat transfer performances close to the theoretical maximum, the coatings produced a "heat transfer coefficient" ten times higher than with the uncoated surfaces, dissipating heat four times faster than previously possible.

Surprisingly, the principles that brought to such a radical performance improvement are very simple, and consist of covering standard heat conducting materials — such as copper and aluminum — with a thin strate of zinc oxide. The coating develops a multi-textured surface that encourages heat to be transferred via capillary forces, and can be applied to large areas as well as electronic components.

Heat transfer can waste such a large portions of energy that for water to reach its boiling point of 100 degrees centigrade the temperature of adjacent plates often has to reach about 140 degrees centigrade. Using this new approach, however, water will boil at about 120 degrees when analogous, zinc oxide-coated plates are used.

Detailed technical information on the study is contained in a freely available paper published by the team. The research has been supported by the Army Research Laboratory, and further studies are currently being carried out to develop broader commercial applications for this technology.