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Optimizing heatsinks for weight and size

Courtesy of MCL Inc.

MCL designs high power RF amplifiers that serve as uplinks in satellite communications systems. Typically, the units operate outdoors attached to truck-mounted satellite dishes. They must be environmentally sealed against contaminants, such as dust, rain and snow and must handle wide temperature variations. Because the dishes are gimbaled, the heatsinks must be as small and light as possible.

A recent amplifier, designed for increased power, generated 1500 watts of thermal energy from the main module and 400 watts from an accessory module. To reduce size and weight, the heatsink was designed to form part of the sealed amplifier enclosure. Heat conducted to ambient was dissipated by an external waterproof fan.

Thermal performance versus weight became a real challenge during heatsink development. Higher performance designs created over weight conditions, while the lighter designs did not adequately cool the components. To balance the performance versus weight, MCL enlisted Coolit software.

The solution proved to be a combination of materials. A preliminary design model was constructed using blocks for key devices and adding a finned heatsink and air flow. As the design evolved, a detailed model was created that included wiring, individual resistors, capacitors and other components. Coolit analysis determined the optimal fin shape, size and spacing. It minimized heatsink size and quantified air flow requirements. Coolit identified which fins were least effective. These fins were removed, further reducing weight, while still keeping the heat sink structurally strong and satisfying the cooling requirements.

Removal of least effective fins reduced heatsink weight.
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