Gathering heat


POSTED: Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More than 100 projects have come across Dr. Seri Lee's desk in his career, claming to solve one of the technology industry's most pressing problems: How to keep an increasing number of ever-smaller gadgets from overheating while making them more energy efficient and longer lasting.

Of those, only six may have been feasible, Lee said, and just one brought him to Hawaii.

He flew to Oahu from North Carolina with his wife last spring at the request of Pipeline Micro, a startup that had been located in several offices at the Manoa Innovation Center before moving this month to the second floor of the IBM building near Ward Centers.

“;This company comes up and says they have solved this problem that everybody knows that people have been working on for the past decade to solve,”; said Lee, a thermal scientist who had spent nearly a decade working in the field at Intel Corp. and now serves as Pipeline's chief technology officer. “;So I was 120 percent skeptical.”;

Three customers have signed contracts with the company, with the first product shipped in mid-December. Pipeline has set up a factory in Atlanta to manufacture pilot volumes before moving bigger orders over to customers.

It also has some financial muscle, last week taking the Hawaii Venture Capital Association's 2008 Deal of the Year award after it raised $7 million in its first round of venture capital funding—$1 million more than expected—from investors in Hawaii, the mainland, Singapore and Japan.

Pipeline first started working with the technology in August 2007 based on tests conducted at the University of Hawaii by Professor Weilin Qu of a small system that could effectively remove heat from a unit's processor. The company now employs 13 people, including two graduates from Qu's program.

“;You want to have a very small device that can take the heat off the chip and move it away where it is easier to manage,”; said Chief Executive Wayne Karo, who previously worked with wireless communications. “;You can never get rid of the heat. You can only move the heat from one place to another and expel it into the ambient environment.”;

The company describes the process like this: Picture boiling water on a pan. At the early stages of boiling, the bubbles form on the bottom of the pan and exit at the top. When the heat becomes greater, the bubbles become more difficult to handle. This is a similar process to liquid cooling systems.

Pipeline has been able to stabilize bubbles within the system while extracting the heat using a two-phase device incorporating 20 milliliters of dielectric liquid as well as a fan.

“;The problem that we are solving is that electronics performance has reached a ceiling due to heat,”; Karo said. “;And this is in many different subsegments of the semiconductor industry. And you actually see product failures in the market now where things just get too hot, they will shut down or break and people have to return them.”;

That includes the design flaws announced in mid-2007 costing Microsoft Corp. more than $1 billion to extend the warranty of its Xbox 360 consoles.

Pipeline's target products include laptops, video projectors and game consoles, as well as smaller-scale devices such as cell phones in the future. Karo estimates the technology will be integrated into products starting at end of this year.

“;The semi-conductor cooling market is a $5 billion market or so right now,”; Karo said. “;By a conservative estimate, it is looking to double over the next five years.”;