BRISTOL, United Kingdom — The UK startup Cambridge Nanotherm has appointed a new chief executive. The move signals the company's intention to commercialize its nanoceramic technology that converts aluminum into a dielectric adept at carrying heat.
Developed by a team from the University of Moscow that includes founding CEO Dr. Pavel Shashkov (who will become the chief technology officer), the material is ideal for metal printed circuit boards and flexible substrates that need to transport heat away. The key is in the manufacturing process, so the company is looking at new ways to add its technology to production lines.
A nanoceramic substrate.
"The first [aluminum converted] product is 30% better than anything else out there and 30% cheaper, and that's just the first product," new CEO Ralph Weir told EE Times. "It conducts heat better than metals and doesn't conduct electricity. That's one aspect. The second aspect is you only need a thin layer, just three microns thick."
The first product is Nanotherm Laminated Copper (LC), a sheet of aluminum with nanoceramic and copper on the top that can be dropped into any metal PCB process. This is aimed at applications such as LED lighting, where the heat dissipation is a key design limitation. It has a thermal resistance of 0.014°C-cm2/W and a thermal conductivity of 7 W/mK, which is up to three times more effective at heat dissipation than conventional metal-backed PCB dielectric materials.
"Traditionally, there's a square law relationship between performance and price, so, quite simply, the best materials are too expensive," said Weir. "With the nanomaterials, it's a linear relationship, so we can pitch it into the middle market, and by switching to this material, they get a 20-degree reduction in temperature. That's either a 4x increase in lifetime or you can drive them twice as hard to get the same light from half the number of LEDs or lower the power."
He is initially targeting US and European makers of high-end LED systems, which are "easiest to pick up to switch across" because of the large amount of light density needed in a small space. Cambridge Nanotherm will also work to build relationships in Asia to reduce costs.
Ralph Weir, CEO
"There's factory lighting, automotive, luminaires, street lighting, the UV curing market for printers -- that's a fantastic market for us, as they use so much power in a tiny space," Weir said.
The company produces substrates for multichip modules, which customers then metallize in a clean room, but this is just one application. With the backing of Enso Ventures, which has also invested in the RFID startup Enso Detego, the process technology has been demonstrated in a production line at HaverHill outside Cambridge.
Still, Nanotherm doesn't yet have production capacity, and protecting the intellectual property behind nanoceramics is challenging. "The IP is the key. There's patents and secret sauce in the process, and it's how you keep control of that that's the challenge." Part of this is strategic, and Weir is looking at embedded factories to disperse the technology. These would be production lines embedded into customers' own lines.
"We don't have the domain experience in all those markets, so it will be a case of partnering with people, building factories in partnership with specific players for specific markets," he said. Various requirements must be met. "There's a huge difference between semiconductor packaging and consumer lightbulbs. The techniques and technology are such that we can do both, so when you are building semiconductor substrates, it's a much smaller tile of material, whereas some of the bigger lighting fittings can be 360 mm across, and you can get tens of thousands of LEDs on that one product."
He called the material's thin, flexible nature a compelling argument for the technology. Nanotherm can make a foil 50 µm thick that could be bonded on FR4 to act as a heat spreader targeted to flexible substrates. "We are working with partners around the world at the moment, and we have a demonstration unit with a foil substrate with a few high-brightness LEDs on. The nanoceramic is made up of nanocrystals 20-40 nm across, and because of that, the material itself is actually flexible, so we can wrap it around a pencil, and it doesn't affect the characteristic of the material."
Nanoceramic technology has been in development since the 1990s, with commercialization beginning in 2010. Weir said his company hopes to quadruple its production capacity and build additional plants around the world, possibly in the United States.