Happy New Year everyone!
Let's usher in this brand new year with a concept so bleeding edge, it doesn't know about the edge yet - crystal refrigeration.
SCIENCE! or campy sci-fi?
We have a long history of science fiction leading the way to innovation in science. Jean-Luc Picard and his PADD popularized the concept of the tablet computer. Various robot legions bent on world domination? Not only are there armies of Tickle Me Elmo robots, but the Human Rights Watch is already fighting against the production of autonomous robotic killing machines, aka "killer robots." Self-driving cars, the main-stay of any futuristic society, can now be found cruising along Nevada and California roads. Super-soldiers? The US army has that covered. You can even buy a giant robot, my favorite science fiction mainstay, and mechanized exoskeletons.
So what science fiction trope will be developed next?
Does anyone admit to watching the Star Gate franchise? Remember the crystals used in the computers? Well, that may be an up and coming technology, in that there is some very cool research going on about using crystals to refrigerate things, such as computers.
Researchers at the Carnegie Institution have discovered a way to pump heat using ferrorelctric crystals. Certain crystals, when introduced to an electric field, dramatically change temperatures, thus allowing heat to be exchanged efficiently.
How does it work?
Let's establish some base concepts first.
Ferrorelectricity - a property of certain crystals that exhibit spontaneous polarization under the transition temperature. Each crystal unit has two poles - one with a negative charge and one with a positive charge. These dipoles can be aligned in the same direction with electricty. If the electric field is reversed, then the crystals switch polarization.
Transition Temperature - (also known as the Curie temperature) the temperature above which the material loses its ability to spontaneously polarize.
Electrocaloric Efffect - a reversible temperature change when an electric field is applied. This effect has been known since the 1930s - and was studied again during the 1960s and 70s - but the cooling effects were too small to be useful. However, in 2006, new research returned a 12 degree (Celsius) temperature change. The current research shows that the electrocaloric effect is heightened with large differences between the ambient temperature and the transition temperature of the material.
Ferroelectric Crystal Refrigeration
Basically, at a certain temperature range, you can apply electricity to a type of ferroelectric crystals and they pump heat away using the electrocaloric effect until the temperature goes under the transition temperature for the crystal or the electric field is disrupted. The research done at the Carnegie Institution indicates that heat can be pumped on the nano-scale as well. I imagine that it will work like an air conditioner in practical applications. Read the original article here.
What can this mean to me?
Needless to say, this may solve some of the heat problems we experience in computing, and could lead to faster computers. One of the biggest hurdles in making computers faster is the amount of heat they generate. If we can control the heat better, then we can continue using the same materials until we run up against another barrier.
The heat pumping ability may also allow us to save on energy costs. Server rooms can get pretty sweltering without aggressive air conditioning. If the crystals can keep the computers cooler, or be used to pump heat out of the building entirely, they could dramatically decrease the amount of power used by companies.