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Purdue Researchers Detail Mechanisms of Fluid Boiling in Microchannels; Commercializing Hybrid and EV IGBT Cooling Systems with Delphi

Researchers identified five major flow regimes of bubbly, slug, churn, wispy-annular, and annular flow, and a postdryout regime of inverted-annular flow. Garimella 2009. Click to enlarge.

Researchers at Purdue University have determined precisely how fluid boils in microchannels, and as a result have created formulas and models that will help engineers design systems to cool high-power electronics in electric and hybrid cars, aircraft, computers, and other applications.

Allowing a liquid to boil in cooling systems dramatically increases how much heat can be removed, compared to simply heating a liquid to below its boiling point, said Suresh Garimella, the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University. However, boiling phenomena at the microscale are complex.

One big question has always been, where is the transition from macroscale boiling to microscale boiling? How do you define a microchannel versus a macrochannel, and at what point do we need to apply different models to design systems? Now we have an answer.

—doctoral student Tannaz Harirchian

The authors’s findings are based on extensive experimental work and analysis over recent years. Experiments were conducted to determine the effects of important geometric parameters such as channel width, depth, and cross-sectional area, operating conditions such as mass flux, heat flux and vapor quality, as well as fluid properties, on flow regimes, pressure drops and heat transfer coefficients in microchannels. High-speed flow visualizations led to a detailed mapping of flow regimes occurring under different conditions. In addition, they identified quantitative criteria for the transition between macro- and micro-scale boiling behavior.

These recent advances towards a comprehensive understanding of flow boiling in microchannels will be detailed in a research paper by Garimella and Harirchian and a keynote address to be presented by Garimella on 8 Oct. during the conference Thermal Investigations of ICs and Systems (Therminic), 7-9 October in Leuven, Belgium. The researchers also have published several related papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Indiana’s 21st Century Research and Technology Fund has provided $1.9 million to Purdue and Delphi Corp. in Kokomo, Ind., to help commercialize the advanced cooling system using microchannels for electronic components in hybrid and electric cars. The research also is funded by the Purdue-based National Science Foundation Cooling Technologies Research Center, a consortium of corporations, university and government laboratories working to overcome heat-transfer obstacles in developing new compact cooling technologies.

The new type of cooling system will be used to prevent overheating of insulated gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs), high-power switching transistors used in hybrid and electric vehicles. The chips are required to drive electric motors, switching large amounts of power from the battery pack to electrical coils needed to accelerate a vehicle from zero to 60 mph in 10 seconds or less. The devices also are needed for regenerative braking, in which the electric motors serve as generators to brake the vehicle, generating power to recharge the battery pack; to convert electrical current to run accessories in the vehicle; and to convert alternating current to direct current to charge the battery from a plug-in line. The high-power devices produce about four times as much heat as a conventional computer chip.

The researchers studied a dielectric liquid, a fluid that doesn’t conduct electricity, which allows it to be used directly in circuits without causing electrical shorts. Researchers used special test chips fabricated by Delphi that are about a half-inch on each side and contain 25 temperature sensors.

Conventional chip-cooling methods use a small fan and finned metal plate heat sinks, which are attached to computer chips to dissipate heat. Such air-cooled methods, however, do not remove enough heat for the advanced automotive electronics, especially because of hot air under a car’s hood, Garimella said.

The microchannels are etched directly on top of the silicon chips. Because both the channels and the chip are made of silicon, there is no dramatic difference in expansion from heating, which allows chips to be stacked on top of each other with the cooling channels between each chip. This stacking makes it possible to create more compact systems, since the chips do not have to be laid out horizontally on a circuit board as they ordinarily would.

Unlike boiling liquid in larger cooling systems, spherical bubbles sometimes don’t form in microchannels. Rather, one long continuous liquid annulus (oblong slugs of vapor in liquid) form.

Harirchian developed formulas that allow engineers to tell when different kinds of flows occur and how to design the systems accordingly. The specific flow regimes—whether the fluid is bubbly, annular or in slugs&mash;must be known before the proper formulas can be used to predict the performance of certain channel designs.

Garimella, who began the microchannel research about 10 years ago, also determined that it’s not the width or the depth of the channels that most influence the boiling behavior but the cross sectional area of each channel. Researchers used a high-speed camera to capture the behavior of the circulating fluid, studying channels as small as 100 by 100 microns and as large as 100 microns deep by about 6 millimeters wide.

Delphi has taken the work further, creating prototypes and commercializing the cooling technology, said Delphi’s Bruce Myers, principal technical fellow.

The researchers have created a database of movies accessible on the NSF center’s Web site to demonstrate the boiling behavior in microchannels. They also have created a complete test matrix that enables engineers to determine how a particular system would perform given a range of channel dimensions, amount of heating and fluid flow.

The cooling systems also are being developed to cool the electronic controls in aircraft, military systems and for other applications.

We hope to be able to use the new models to help us in designing vapor cycle system evaporators for aircraft thermal management. These evaporators typically operate over the full range of flow regimes studied by Garimella's team, and each individual flow regime must be accurately modeled to predict evaporator performance.

—Hal Strumpf, senior technology fellow and chief engineer for thermal systems at Honeywell International Inc.

Future research is concentrating on creating additional heat-transfer models for designing the cooling systems.


  • Suresh V. Garimella and Tannaz Harirchian (2009) Boiling Heat Transfer and Flow Regimes in Microchannels – a Comprehensive Understanding (THERMINIC 2009)


Henry Gibson

Use silicon-carbide instead so that cooling is not as important. For smaller cheaper cars use motors with brushes instead of electronics. The higher efficiency, but far higher cost of electronic systems is not economical in some uses. Some locomotives are still being built with motors with brushes instead of AC inverters, and locomotives are even used a much higher percentage of the time where efficiency is much more important. The all mechanical Ward-Leonard system with a flywheel for acceleration and regeneration can even give longer life to lead battery systems. ..HG..

Henry Gibson

Try heat pipe technology with liquid channels and vapour channels. It has been known how to cool high power electronics since before the first thyristor locomotives forty years ago or more. ..HG..


This is the kind of business activity new technology can create. They need to cool the PHEV/EV electronics and companies offer solutions. Now industry not only makes engine blocks but power device cooling as well.

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