CPU coolers aren’t rocket science, but the Sandia National Laboratories has produced one anyway. As one might expect, it’s rather special. The patent-pending "Air Bearing Heat Exchanger" promises to substantially reduce the amount of energy required to cool microprocessors while simultaneously cutting noise levels. Fans are the only source of energy consumption for common air coolers, and they happen to be the sole generators of noise. Sandia’s cooler doesn’t have one. Instead, it rotates the heatsink itself. Here’s a diagram pulled from the official press release:
According to Sandia, spinning the specially designed heatsink at "a few thousand RPM" generates a centrifugal pumping effect that shrinks the boundary layer between the cooling fins and the air by a factor of 10. A lengthy and equation-filled whitepaper (PDF) on the technology describes this layer of dead air as the "primary physical limitation to performance" of traditional air coolers. That same whitepaper talks up the noise-reducing potential of this new approach to cooling, and it points out that the spinning fins won’t accumulate dust. Sweet!
Although Sandia’s press release focuses more on potential applications for data centers, the technology is said to be suitable for laptops and PCs. In fact, high-performance gaming rigs are mentioned specifically. It’s even more encouraging to see the design described as "simple, rugged, and cost-competitive."
From what I understand, the so-called "Sandia Cooler" should have a much lower profile than traditional heatsink/fan combos that offer similar performance and noise levels. If that’s indeed the case, the world of PC cooling could be on the verge of an interesting transition. Sandia is currently looking to license the technology to partners who will bring products to market.