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Which Cooling Method is Best for AI Transportables?

January 24, 2023

Which Cooling Method is Best for AI Transportables?

By Braden Cooper, Product Marketing Manager

The most powerful artificial intelligence computing hardware is designed to thrive in a datacenter environment where there is uncapped clean power, near limitless cooling capacity, and a vibration-free environment. The growth of AI use cases in vehicles including automated crop management, autonomous long-haul freight, and military ISR aircraft necessitates the use of datacenter-oriented hardware in vehicles – particularly for initial developments while more customized size, weight, and power (SWaP) optimized embedded platforms are developed. The transition from friendly environmental conditions to the rigors of the road require system designs which mitigate the thermal, structural, and other challenging environmental conditions of the transportable application. The thermal design is in a critical state – with the latest AI-oriented GPUs and CPUs reaching heat flux densities never before seen. Advanced thermal management designs provide a path to solving the heat flux challenge – but each come with advantages and disadvantages in implementation. This infographic highlights some of the methods which can be used to cool systems in AI transportable applications.


Which Cooling Method is Best for AI Transportables?
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The best cooling method depends on many variables – from heat flux density to the SWaP constraints. With these existing technologies and ongoing industry innovation – powerful enterprise hardware can be used to solve the most demanding AI transportable challenges. The next few years are pivotal in the advancement of thermal management within datacenters – as immersion cooling and improved thermal interface materials see wider adoption. Transitioning these same cooling methods to AI Transportables solves the need for higher compute capacity at the location of data generation.

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Which Cooling Method is Best for AI Transportables?  (text version)

With the latest high-performance GPUs and CPUs reaching TDP’s of greater than 500W, innovative cooling solutions are needed to bring maximum performance to the harshest environments.  While some cooling methods are acceptable for datacenters, the size, weight, temperature, power, noise, and vibration constraints of vehicles introduce new challenges.

1. Conduction (Natural Convection)
Heat moves from heat generating components to the case of the system via conduction through a combination of thermal interface materials and heat pipes. The enclosure then dissipates heat to the surrounding environment - often through fins built into the chassis.

Key Factors:
- Heat dissipated through system enclosure
- Heat moves through system via contact with thermal interface materials or heat pipes
Pros:
- High shock/vibration tolerance
- Passive cooling - no added power consumption to cool
Cons:
- Limited cooling capacity
- Limited system performance
- Thermal interface limits repairability

2. Forced Convection (Air/Fans)
Heat is conducted from components to heatsinks, transferred to air provided by fans, then exhausted out of the enclosure. Fan quantity, size, and electrical properties dictate the effectiveness and supported temperature range of the system.

Key Factors:
- Trade-offs between size, noise, power, and cooling capacity
- Uses environment air - no external heat exchanger required
Pros:
- Wide range of supported heat loads and environmental conditions
- Low cost per performance makes good candidate for medium heat requirements
Cons:
- High noise output
- Fan serviceability challenges
- Not effective for high heat output components

3. Direct-to-Chip Liquid Cooling
Heat is transferred to a fluid being pumped through a coldplate and cooling loop which touches the primary heat sources within a system. The hot fluid exits the system and is cooled by an external heat exchanger before recirculating into the system. All-in-one systems cool the liquid through an integrated radiator within or attached to the system

Key Factors:
- Fluid properties and flow rate dictate performance
- Industrial grade components limit risk of leaks
- Variety of fluids to fit different applications and heat loads
Pros:
- Wide range of supported heat loads and environmental conditions
- Low cost per performance makes good candidate for medium heat requirements
Cons:
- Limited effectiveness in extreme ambient temperatures
- Dependent on heat exchanger to cool fluid

4. Single-phase Immersion Cooling
The system is immersed in a non-conductive fluid. Heat is transfered to the fluid from the heat generating components, then the fluid exits the system and is cooled by an external heat exchanger before recirculating into the system. The fluid is often directed across the primary heat sources by pumps to improve cooling capacity and efficiency.

Key Factors:
- Fluid properties and system design dictate performance
- High mass density of fluid changes SWaP profile considerably
Pros:
- High thermal efficiency enables high ambient temperature applications
- Can dampen impact of vibration based on system design
Cons:
- Additional weight limits transportable applications
- Limited field serviceability - Dependent on heat exchanger to cool fluid

5. Two-phase Immersion Cooling
The system is immersed in a non-conductive fluid which has a boiling point near the target operating point of a key heat generating component. Once the fluid reaches its boiling point, the fluid changes phases to a gaseous state and rises to the surface of the system, pulling heat out of the fluid. The gas is then cooled and recondenses on a condensing coil to recirculate within the system.

Key Factors:
- Latent heat property of fluid dictate performance
- High thermal efficiency enables extreme environmental applications
Pros:
- Supports highest ambient temperature of all methods
- Small power overhead to enable cooling cycle
Cons:
- Engineered fluids expensive and application specific
- Fluid property variations at altitude limit aerospace applications 

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