PCB Thermal Design Hack Gets Hot And Heavy

Thanks to the relatively recent rise of affordable board production services, many of the people reading Hackaday are just now learning the ropes of PCB design. For those still producing the FR4 equivalent of “Hello World”, it’s accomplishment enough that all the traces go where they’re supposed to. But eventually your designs will become more ambitious, and with this added complexity will naturally come new design considerations. For example, how do you keep a PCB from cooking itself in high current applications?

It’s this exact question that Mike Jouppi hoped to help answer when he hosted last week’s Hack Chat. It’s a topic he takes very seriously, enough that he actually started a company called Thermal Management LLC dedicated to helping engineers cope with PCB thermal design issues. He also chaired the development of IPC-2152, a standard for properly sizing board traces based on how much current they’ll need to carry. It isn’t the first standard that’s touched on the issue, but it’s certainly the most modern and comprehensive.

It’s common for many designers, who can be referencing data that in some cases dates back to the 1950s, to simply oversize their traces out of caution. Often this is based on concepts that Mike says his research has found to be inaccurate, such as the assumption that the inner traces of a PCB tend to run hotter than those on the outside. The new standard is designed to help designers avoid these potential pitfalls, though he notes that it’s still an imperfect analog for the real-world; additional data such as mounting configuration needs to be taken into consideration to get a better idea of a board’s thermal properties.

Even with such a complex topic, there’s some tips that are widely applicable enough to keep in mind. Mike says the thermal properties of the substrate are always going to be poor compared to copper, so using internal copper planes can help conduct heat through the board. When dealing with SMD parts that produce a lot of heat, large copper plated vias can be used to create a parallel thermal path.

Towards the end of the Chat, Thomas Shaddack chimes in with an interesting idea: since the resistance of a trace will increase as it gets hotter, could this be used to determine the temperature of internal PCB traces that would otherwise be difficult to measure? Mike says the concept is sound, though if you wanted to get an accurate read, you’d need to know the nominal resistance of the trace to calibrate against. Certainly something to keep in mind for the future, especially if you don’t have a thermal camera that would let you peer into a PCB’s inner layers.

A rig used to test thermal properties of different trace configurations.

While the Hack Chats are often rather informal, we noticed some fairly pointed questions this time around. Clearly there were folks out there with very specific issues that needed some assistance. It can be difficult to address all the nuances of a complex problem in a public chat, so in a few cases we know Mike directly reached out to attendees so he could talk them through the issues one-on-one.

While we can’t always promise you’ll get that kind of personalized service, we think it’s a testament to the unique networking opportunities available to those who take part in the Hack Chat, and thank Mike for going that extra mile to make sure everyone’s questions were answered to the best of his ability.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

Apple II computer on a workbench

Simple Fan Controller Helps Apple II To Beat The Heat

In its day, the Apple II computer didn’t typically require active cooling. However, the increasing scarcity of replacement hardware convinced [Joshua Coleman] to come up with a more robust active cooling solution for his Apple II+, increasing the likelihood that it will keep on crunching numbers for decades to come.

Joshua mentions that he recorded temperatures inside his Apple II+ peaking at 110 Fahrenheit (over 43 Celsius). This isn’t totally unexpected for a fully-loaded Apple II system, and components were built to handle this – the original datasheet for the 6500 microprocessor family reveals that the CPU can handle temperatures as high as 158 Fahrenheit (70 Celsius). Unfortunately, we’re not dealing with brand new components anymore. Decades-old microprocessors don’t necessarily have the same thermal tolerance as they once did. All components will eventually wear out, and heat can certainly accelerate the aging process.

In the interests of maintaining his system, Joshua cobbled together an Arduino-based cooling system for his Apple II+. A temperature/humidity sensor continuously monitors the heat situation inside the case – when things get too toasty, a 12V fan powers up to draw fresh air over the logic board and expansion cards. A simple cooling curve reduces wear on the fan motor and relay.

This is hardly the first active cooling system for the Apple II line – in the 1980s, Kensington produced a popular (if not stupendously ugly) ‘System Saver’ accessory, an external bolt-on fan that kept things running cool. These were often deployed in schools and by power users looking for added reliability when maxing out the Apple II expansion slots, a configuration that could increase temperatures due to the extra power requirements and reduced airflow.

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Hacked AC Window Unit Split In Half To Cool The Garage

It’s getting into the hot summer months for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and for many Hackaday readers, that means its time to get the old window air conditioner out of storage and lug it back into position. But what if you’re trying to cool a space that doesn’t have a convenient window? In that case, this clever conversion that [Infrared] came up with to keep his garage cool¬†might be of interest.

Basically, he’s taken the classic window AC and turned it into an impromptu ductless unit. By rotating the evaporator coils into a vertical position and lengthening the compressor wires, he was able to make the center of the AC thin enough that he could close his garage door over it. The back of the unit looks largely untouched, but the front side has a real Mad Max vibe going on; with sheet metal, exposed wiring, and a couple of fans thrown in for good measure. Fine for the garage or workspace, but probably not a great choice for the kid’s room.

[Infrared] says the hacked up AC can get his garage 18 degrees cooler than the outside air temperature in its current form, but he hopes the addition of some high CFM computer fans will not only improve performance, but let him make the new front panel look a bit neater. Though even in its current form, this is far from the most ridiculous DIY AC project we’ve seen in recent memory.

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PC Overclocking With An Air Conditioner

We never insist that a hack be practical. [Tech Ingredients] is living proof as they modded a computer case to use a window air conditioner for overclocking a computer. They think they haven’t hit the ceiling yet, and got their AMD Ryzen 8-core processor up to 4.58 GHz.

An advantage of forcing air from an air conditioner is that the air forced into the system is quite dry and clean. The trick is to create a simple duct to attach to a 5,000 BTU air conditioner. It doesn’t actually interface with the CPU cooling block, instead it just forces cool air into the case and this tends to cool everything inside. Admittedly, it isn’t any worse than plunging your computer in liquid nitrogen, and we’ll admit that air conditioning units are made to keep large areas cold and work at high duty cycles. With the air conditioning running, they disconnected at least some of the stock fans. The temperatures stayed cool even at high speeds.

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Exhaust Fan-Equipped Reflow Oven Cools PCBs Quickly

With reflow soldering, sometimes close is good enough. At the end of the day, the home gamer really just needs a hot plate or an old toaster oven and a calibrated Mark I eyeball to get decent results. This exhaust fan-equipped reflow oven is an attempt to take control of what’s perhaps the more challenging part of the reflow thermal cycle — the cool down.

No fan of the seat-of-the-pants school of reflow soldering, [Nabil Tewolde] started with a cast-off toaster oven for what was hoped to be a more precise reflow oven. The requisite temperature sensors and solid-state relays were added, along with a Raspberry Pi Zero W and a small LCD display. Adding the cooling assist started by cutting a gaping hole cut in the rear wall of the oven, which was then filled with a short stretch of HVAC duct and a stepper-controlled damper. The far end of the duct was fitted with a PC cooling fan; while it seems sketchy to use a plastic fan to eject hot air from the oven, [Nabil] says the exhaust isn’t really that hot by the time it gets to the fan. At the end of the reflow phase of the thermal profile, the damper opens and the fan kicks on, rapidly cooling the oven’s interior.

Unfortunately, [Nabil] still needs to crack open the oven door to get decent airflow; seems like another damper to admit fresh air would help with that. That would complicate things a bit, but it still wouldn’t be as over-the-top as some reflow builds we’ve seen. Then again, that calibrated eyeball thing can work pretty well too, even¬†without a toaster oven.

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Near-Silent Bellows Uses Water Flow And Magnetic Coupling

Fan noise is a contentious issue among the computer community. Some don’t notice it, others rage against it as an annoyance and distraction. Some turn to liquid cooling, while others look to passive solutions to eliminate the scourge. [Matt] of [DIY Perks] may have found a far more oddball solution, however.

The build is essentially a giant bellows, but the manner in which it operates is unlike anything we’ve seen previously. To shift the large pusher plate inside back and forth, [Matt] initially experimented with building his own linear motor out of coils and magnets. After that failed, he began to tinker with a system of moving a magnet back and forth through a tube with water pressure from a pump, which would then drive the pusher plate through magnetic coupling. This looked promising, but reversing the flow proved difficult. After building his own set of water valves to change the flow direction, the bellows began to work slowly, but with limited performance. Realizing the valves weren’t up to scratch, [Matt] rebuilt the system with 10 pumps, set up in two banks of 5. With the pumps hooked up in series, they supplied plenty of pressure to force the bellows back and forth. Reed switches were used to reverse the flow at either end to make the bellows run continuously.

In testing, the bellows compared well with a bank of four large case fans, though at 20 times the size. Suffice to say this is not exactly a compact solution. We look forward to seeing [Matt] do more with the bellows, with his intention being to use it as the primary cooling system for a computer. Of course, if this looks too complex, you could always consider a mineral oil setup instead. Video after the break.

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Official Teardown Gives Unexpected Look Into PS5

With Sony and Microsoft still a month away from the public release of their next-generation game consoles, you’d expect technical details of their respective systems to still be under a veil of secrecy. But both companies look to be taking things a bit differently this generation, as it becomes increasingly clear that modern consumers are interested in what makes their devices tick. Today, Sony really threw down the gauntlet by beating the tech media to the punch and posting their own in-depth teardown on the new PlayStation 5.

Unsurprisingly, the video after the break is almost entirely in Japanese. But even if you don’t know the language, there’s plenty of interesting details to be had. For one thing, the heatsink and fan that cools the PS5’s AMD CPU and GPU are collectively so massive that they appear to take up most of the console’s internal volume.

In fact, the heatsink itself is so large that the motherboard is actually mounted to it instead of the other way around. So if you want to take out the board, you have to unbolt it from the heatsink and remove it first. In the process you’ll expose the unique liquid metal thermal compound that Sony apparently developed specifically for this application. Good luck to you if any dust gets in that expensive-looking goop.

It’s also interesting to note that, unlike the previous two generations of Sony consoles, the PS5 has no discrete hard drive. Instead, onboard flash with a custom controller is used to provide 825 GB of storage for software. Hopefully Sony has put the requisite amount of R&D into their wear leveling, as a shot flash chip will mean a whole new motherboard. That said, gamers with extensive collections will be happy to see there appears to be an expansion bay where you can install your own M.2 drive.

Between this and the recent PS4 assembly line tour, it’s refreshing to see a company like Sony be a bit more transparent. After years of adversarial treatment from the tech giants, we’d almost forgotten that the customer is supposed to be king. Continue reading “Official Teardown Gives Unexpected Look Into PS5”