Thermal Management Materials: Do’s and Don’ts

Electrolube’s Jade Bridges picks up from her previous article on thermal management materials, offering this guide to material types and their application, along with the questions you should be asking yourself before you decide on the type of material for a particular job and how you intend to apply it.

Selecting a thermal management material that is broadly applicable to a particular electronic assembly and its predicted operating conditions is, if anything, a good starting point; however, as ever with these things, the devil is very much in the detail! There is a host of materials and methods out there to choose from, and they serve a variety of purposes depending upon the physical constraints of the application – the environmental considerations, severity of duty, component layout, geometry of the assembly and so forth.

“What Thermal Management Product type should I Plan to apply?”

“What Should I look out for when I apply it?”

Generally, the first question you should ask yourself is: what thermal management product type should I plan to apply and what should I look out for when applying it? There are five main groups of thermal management materials, which are broken down further according to variations in their material chemistries and formulations. These include: curing and non-curing pastes, bonding materials/adhesives, encapsulation resins, thermally conductive gap filler/pads and phase change materials.

Non-curing pastes, for example, are ideal for applications where rework may be required. They utilise different base oils to provide a range of desirable properties, such as the wide operating temperature range offered by silicone based products. Recent advances in non-silicone technologies have seen the introduction of products offering higher thermal conductivity with significantly reduced oil bleed and evaporation weight loss.

Generally, non-curing products should be applied as thinly as possible with minimal excess, and the product must also be well mixed to avoid oil bleed. The golden rule here is not to be tempted to apply thicker layers – it doesn’t improve the results and may even prove problematic. Remember, the thickness of the thermal interface material becomes the ‘rate determining step’; the thicker it is applied above the minimum amount required, the slower will be the rate of heat transfer.

If rework is likely to be unnecessary over the life of the assembly, then you might like to consider using a curing/bonding thermal management product. However, for curing products or those that have a solvent for application purposes, you must consider the working time of the product. For example, if the product touch-dries rapidly, it may not be suitable for stencil printing as the cured product may block the screen.

 

To get around this problem, ensure that the screen mesh size is suitable for the particle size of the paste and that the screen will be able to cope with the thickness of paste required. Moreover, if you are using automated dispensing equipment, the dot profile and quantity of paste should be considered to ensure that the minimum amount of material can still be applied.

A bonding thermal interface material may be required if a heat sink needs to be held firmly in place without the use of fasteners. In this case it is important to get the bond strength right otherwise the heat sink is likely to become dislodged if the assembly is subject to shock or high amplitude vibration. Another alternative is to use thermal gap pads, which are pre-cut to size and manually mounted without mess or waste, and without need for dispensing equipment. Gap pads do not move during thermal cycling, so they tend not to suffer pump-out, which is common with some thermal pastes.

The thing to remember with pads is that they provide a thicker interface layer and therefore tend to have a higher thermal resistance. Pads work best for applications where there is a pressure exerted on the interface, minimising the bond line and ensuring maximum contact with the gap pad. This pressure forces the pad material into the air pockets, effectively reducing the thermal resistance.

Another option for managing the transfer of heat away from electronic devices is to use a thermally conductive potting compound resin. These products are designed to offer protection from environmental attack while allowing heat generated within the device to be dissipated to its surroundings. Encapsulation resins often incorporate thermally conductive fillers to boost their thermal performance, while the base resin, hardener and other additives can be altered to provide a wide range of options.

Where encapsulation resins are concerned, the entire PCB is likely to be covered and the amount of resin required will be determined by the protection level required as well as other factors, such as the weight and volume gains contributed by the resin. You will also need to ensure that there are no air voids within the cured resin as this will compromise its electrical properties and thermal transfer performance. As with all resins, ensure the mix ratio is adhered to and the product is mixed well using an air-free mixing method.

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Next, you should consider the substrate and intended bond line thickness. What is the condition of the substrate? Is the gap size at the interface known? Contact surfaces vary, as do contact pressures. The most important thing is to ensure that there is no air trapped at the interface because air is a poor conductor of heat. Even minute amounts of air entrapment at the interface – possibly due to poorly mating surfaces, inaccurate application of a thermal interface medium or gaps wider than calculated – then the efficiency of thermal transfer will certainly be reduced.

Determine whether your application is one that requires a thinly applied thermal interface material such as a paste or whether a thicker gap filler is required, which would normally be applied to a thickness greater than 500 microns. With any thermally conductive material, you can ensure that the interface between device and heat sink is completely filled, and that all air is displaced, by applying a quantity of the compound to the centre of the mating surface of the device or the heat sink, and bringing the two together, displacing any excess material as mating pressure is increased.

Finally, consider your preferred method of application – will it be manual using syringes, or will it be semi- or fully-automated using state-of-the-art dispensing equipment? Screen printing may be another option that you might care to consider.

As with the materials themselves, if you are making decisions on application technique, always seek expert advice. Talk to us! We have a Global Technical Support Team always on hand to help and guide you to the correct product and, by extension, the easiest application method for that product; our goal is to ensure a streamlined production process and provision of efficient heat transfer both in initial application and final use. We thrive on challenges, so if you have a particular thermal management issue, please do contact our support team via email or chat.