Coolers are essential for computers to work properly and for their components to have a prolonged life span. The accessories make it possible to control the heat naturally generated by the operation of processors and other computer components, thus preventing the temperature from damaging the parts, compromising their performance, and even affecting the power consumption, something especially relevant in devices such as notebooks.
In the following, you will learn about the different types of coolers and how they work. We also explain the differences between air, liquid, and passive cooling systems as well as the importance of components such as vapor chambers and heat sinks.
What are coolers for?
Coolers, which you can also call fans, are needed in computers to increase air circulation to improve the equipment’s ability to dissipate heat in the environment. Controlling heat is fundamental for good performance, prolonged life span and even keeping power consumption under control.
Excessive heat can, over time, damage computer components because of the natural expansion and contraction cycle of materials: when a chip heats up it expands, and when it cools down it contracts. Over time, this process can create ruptures that compromise the functioning of components.
Since engineers who create these chips know these all too well these risks, there are ways in which the component itself can seek to control excessive heat to prevent permanent physical damage: so-called throttling. A processor that gets close to its thermal limit will aggressively slow down its performance as a strategy to decrease power circulation and, consequently, heat in its internal circuitry.
Coolers and air cooling
The simplest type of cooler cooling is the conventional one, involving heatsinks, heat pipes, and the coolers themselves. In this model, heat is dissipated using the internal air circulation inside the PC case, or even using convection: as it heats up, the air naturally rises and is then exhausted by the fan.
Heatsinks are metallic structures that can work independently of the cooler. In various formats, but always looking like several metal fins, these devices have the function of increasing the contact surface with the air, channeling the heat generated by the components to which they are connected.
Heatpipes or vapor chambers are forms of heatsinks that use phase change: a special liquid heats up inside the device to give off the heat. As it heats up, the liquid evaporates and flows to a cooler end of the heat pipe/chamber. There it cools and flows back to the point of contact, where the heat is high, restarting the cycle. Overall, heat pipes – and especially steam chambers – are much more efficient, but require more sophisticated manufacturing, and so are not as common.
Combined, coolers and heatsinks (or heat pipes) form an active cooling system in which the cooler’s function is to force more air into the heat sink. The more air circulating, the greater the heat exchange provided by the system and the greater the capacity for temperature dissipation offered by the set. There are also cases of passive air cooling: when only one heat sink is enough to handle the heat generated by a memory stick or SSD, for example.
Those looking for more efficient cooling can resort to systems that circulate liquids inside the computer. The reasoning is the same, and the difference is the media: liquids are better at absorbing heat and generate better results than air. It is the same explanation as to why most modern combustion engines use liquids, and not air, to control their temperatures.
However, liquids need to be contained and end up depending on more complicated installations where care and attention are needed to avoid leaks and other problems that can compromise the computer.
In the end, just like in the air-based system, the liquid needs to be cooled – otherwise, the temperature rises and the material loses its ability to heat and dissipate heat from the components. Radiators and coolers are used for this.
If in the air system there are heat pipes and heatsinks, liquid systems use pumps, which make the liquid circulate through the pipes; radiator, to cool the liquid; and reservoirs, in which the substance is stored and accumulated. The great advantage of liquid systems tends to be greater thermal efficiency, and quietness in operation. The disadvantages are the cost and complexity of installation, with the risk of leaks.