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What if your smartphone could sweat? Sounds odd, but it could be a game changer

It’s no secret that sweat is pretty gross. It’s also immensely important. That’s because it helps the body to regulate its temperature by keeping us cool in hot environments or when we’re carrying out strenuous activities. While evolution has given us this method of cooling off, high-tech devices lag behind. Instead of being able to regulate their temperature this way, computers typically rely on fans, which kick into high gear whenever we try and carry out some computing-intensive task.

Researchers from China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University think we should make high-tech devices more like mammals. With that in mind, they have developed a special sorbent coating for electronics that releases water vapor to dissipate heat from running devices. A sorbent substance is one that collects molecules from another substance through absorption. The result is an innovative new thermal management system researchers think could help keep electronic devices even cooler than current approaches.

“The coating can capture moisture from the atmosphere during the off-peak period of electronics,” Chenxi Wang, a Ph.D. candidate who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “In the following temperature-rising period, the water inside sorbents is desorbed and a large amount of heat is extracted simultaneously. The key improvement of this method is that the sorbent coating can absorb several times the heat when compared with [phase change materials] of the same mass. It means effective thermal management for a longer time can be realized.”

A computer that sweats sounds kind of crazy. But Wang said  it could turn out to be incredibly useful. Active cooling methods such as fan-assisted forced convection consume energy. The bulky nature of fans also limits their application, which is why you’ll find a fan in your laptop but not your smartwatch.

Devices like phones make smart use of features like heat sink composed of copper. Because copper is a good conductor, it takes heat away from the phone’s components, while the shape of the thin copper metal sheet means it cools quickly thanks to its large surface area. Other attempts to keep phones cool involve phase change materials, such as waxes and fatty acids. These absorb heat produced by devices when they melt. But the total amount of energy exchanged during the solid-liquid transition is relatively low. A special sweatable coating may therefore represent a promising alternative.

“In our [recent work], we demonstrated this technology on a micro computing device,” Wang said. “We are now carrying out more tests to extend this technology to more electronic devices, such as phones, fast-charging batteries, and [photovoltaic] modules. We are cooperating with companies to evaluate its potential in practical commercial applications.”

A paper describing the project was published in the journal Cell Press.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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