Minnesota-based Maxwell Labs is working on an alternative method for managing heat in data centers: radiative cooling.

Engineered material offers cool solution to supercomputing’s heat generation

Supercomputing at data centers is hot. Sure, it’s “hot” in that it’s expanding rapidly and is considered the driver of much future innovation. But it’s also literally “hot” because it consumes a lot of energy and produces a ton of heat. Minnesota-based Maxwell Labs wants to cool it down.

“The way that we do cooling in general is kind of the way we’ve been doing it since day one … we pump water or blow air across it to dissipate the heat,” said Jacob Balma, CEO and founder of Maxwell Labs. This cooling happens via a heatsink, a passive heat exchange device that increases heat flow away from a computer. But there’s a problem: “Big supercomputers are at the limits of what they can cool using these conventional methods,” he said. 

The technology

The Maxwell Labs team is working on an alternative method: radiative cooling. They developed a thermal compound that improves the connectivity between the heatsink and computer processor.

“But it also had this other property, which is that it converts some of that thermal energy into radiation,” Balma said. “What’s become really cool in the last few years is that you can engineer materials to have very different properties than what’s found naturally.” 

Engineering materials in certain ways lets them pull more heat away from the electronic device. They can be an alternative to fans and liquid cooling pumps.

Currently, Maxwell Labs’ thermal compounds reduce computer chips’ operating temperatures by 15%, or about 5 to 10 degrees Celsius. Yet, the chips offer the same performance. 

“That has a huge impact on the overall temperature of the building — how much energy needs to go into the air conditioning system, for example,” Balma said. “It makes the chips operate more efficiently because they’re running colder, and it thereby reduces the actual energy required to power the chip.”

This type of radiative cooling technology already is being applied in other sectors, but Maxwell Labs is adapting it for use in data centers.

“It’s already being applied to solar panels and to green infrastructure where they’re trying to increase the efficiency of buildings through coatings,” Balma said. “What’s exciting about radiative cooling is that it doesn’t contribute to global warming. It’s basically a way to convert all of the heat that would otherwise be put into the atmosphere by all the data centers in the world.”

What’s next

The company’s main goal is to get large companies that are building giant data centers, like Amazon and Google, to adopt the thermal compounds and Maxwell Labs’ first-generation radiative heatsink.

“What’s hard is proving that you have the capability to go and scale up the production,” Balma said. “That’s where the need for investment comes in.”

Funding can be challenging in the Midwest because of investors’ more conservative strategies than on the coasts, he said. But accelerator programs help, especially with making connections and building relationships with potential partners. Maxwell Labs has participated in some programs including the new Chicago-based mHUB smart manufacturing hardtech accelerator and a cohort of Wisconsin-based gener8tor’s accelerator.

The business is launching its first seed round, which it will use to purchase equipment to scale operations and grow its team. By the end of 2022, Balma would like Maxwell Labs’ first-generation radiative heatsink to be integrated into a customer’s system as a replacement for fans.

Maxwell Labs currently is working with some customers on pilot projects and is starting to have conversations with potential end-users like computer chip manufacturers. Graphics card developers and cryptocurrency mining operations are other sectors showing an early interest in the emerging technology.