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The National Science Foundation has selected a University of Central Florida scientist for a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for his work that is projected to revolutionize the way electronic devices use and dissipate heat.

Shawn Putnam, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, will receive $510,000 from the agency to study the physics of heat transfer and help develop new cooling technologies to keep up with the demand for faster, more powerful and smaller devices such as computers, radars and lasers.

The CAREER award recognizes outstanding young scientists who most effectively integrate research and education at their institutions and hold the expectation of further contributions to the scientific community.

Filling the Gaps of Scientific Knowledge

Putnam uses the analogy of an airplane engine to explain the existing gaps in scientific knowledge about heating and cooling.

Typically most airplanes do not have engine problems when idling on the tarmac or during flight in nice weather. Issues most often occur during the “transient” phase of fight: the takeoffs and landings.

“The problems take place when you try to take off or land too rapidly. Likewise, in heat-transfer applications, things break down when you try to heat or cool too rapidly. And those transient regimes are not well defined in textbooks,” Putnam said.

The reason the physics is not well understood is because of the complexity of systems required to build a next-generation device and the need for all of those technologies to advance at the same rate. Those issues are magnified at the small-scale by all the rapidly moving parts and increased power densities, which are further complicated by the diminished space available to use traditional cooling agents such as air or liquids.
Shawn Putnam poses in his lab
Shawn Putnam

A CAREER in Physics and Engineering

Putnam’s area of expertise is heat transfer and the quest for a thorough and accurate understanding of the energy transfer when different materials interact.

That energy must be regulated to keep a device from overheating, a challenge that increases when devices get smaller, Putnam said.

Louis Chow, UCF’s university chair of mechanical engineering and a specialist in heat transfer, said Putnam’s work addresses an important area of thermal engineering.

“Over the next few years, Shawn seeks to establish the fundamental limits of evaporative cooling to keep high-power-density electronic devices working properly in a suitable temperature environment for maximum reliability, efficiency and functionality under dynamic and highly transient conditions. The work is critical for all future development of high-power electronics and he is a world’s leader in this area,” Chow said.

The NSF CAREER program will allow Putnam to focus on prominent cooling methods based on evaporation and flow boiling in micro-channel devices.

“The holy grail for all thermal management techniques is an accurate, predictive understanding of the heat-transfer coefficient for a broad range of conditions,” Putnam said.

By involving students at both the undergraduate and graduate level in the work, Putnam said he wants to instill in the next generation of scientists the skills and knowledge required to be future leaders that pursue new ideas that will address challenging and critical scientific problems.

The project is funded for five years.