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Student aims to cool computer chips

siyi_zhouSiyi Zhou aspires to improve the way electronics and even spacecraft function with her research. “People’s lives will be changed by engineers,” the Binghamton doctoral student says. “Maybe someday I can see my designs in real products.”

Zhou’s work focuses on numerical simulations of electronic packaging and thermal management. She aims to develop a numerical, multiphysics approach to mitigate fluid and thermal issues for microprocessors. Zhou also studies emerging energy-conversion devices.

High-density electronic devices have caused a sharp increase in heat-removal requirements, she notes, and traditional cooling methods can’t meet this need. The search for alternative methods leads in turn to challenges in electronics packaging and microprocessor cooling. “My work is focused on liquid-cooled microchannel heat sinks, which offer a new way to keep chips in high-performance computers from overheating,” says Zhou, who has validated her model with prior experimental data. “I hope I can provide some guidelines for real practice.”

Another aspect of her work centers on thermoelectric generators, which convert thermal energy into electric power. The current efficiency of such generators is around 5 percent. Zhou thinks her work could increase that to 7 or 8 percent.

“It has lots of applications, like in spacecraft, where energy from the natural decay of plutonium could generate power,” she says. “It also could change vehicles, where the temperature difference between exhaust and coolant could be used to turn waste heat energy into electric power.”

Zhou earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China before deciding to pursue further graduate work in the United States. She expects to defend her dissertation in mechanical engineering this year and hopes to go to work in U.S. industry after graduation.

Bahgat Sammakia, vice president for research at Binghamton and director of the Small Scale Systems Integration and Packaging Center, has mentored Zhou. “When I give her a research assignment,” he says, “she surprises me with her ideas and things she has discovered on her own. She has solved some really difficult problems related to electrical and mechanical engineering and fluid dynamics. She’s absolutely brilliant.”

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