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Heat Generation Issues

Heat generation in electronic circuits is equivalent to inefficiency, but then one cannot have a circuit that operates at 100% efficiency—the laws of Physics and Thermodynamics say so. Therefore, we must accept that any electronic circuit will generate some amount of heat when it is in operation. As most electronic components are now available as miniature, surface mount technology, removal of heat from the tiny devices poses a tough problem, especially when mounting them on a printed circuit board (PCB) that is a poor conductor of heat.

A typical PCB has an insulating core, which also does not conduct heat very well. Although there are copper traces present, the amount of heat conducted by conventional PCBs depends on their design—specifically, the surface area of the copper traces—broad traces conducting heat better than thin traces do. Engineers solve the problem of conducting heat away from PCBs by using metal core PCBs (MCPCBs), where they use a metal core as the base material in place of the regular FR4 or CEM3.

Why use Solid Copper?

As copper has high thermal conductivity, it is a natural choice for use as a heat spreader in MCPCBs. Circuit traces, necessary to interconnect various components on the PCB, remain electrically insulated from the base metal core as there is a thermally conductive dielectric layer separating them. This dielectric layer bonds the circuit traces to the base metal. In fact, the thermal performance of any MCPCB depends exclusively on this dielectric layer.

Examples of such MCPCBs with solid copper base are those engineers use for mounting LED lights. Although an SMD LED is a high-efficiency device, and it converts a major part of its input power into visible light, a minor part generates waste heat within the LED chip—with high power LED lights generating more waste heat. Unless removed, this waste heat buildup can be fatal to the LED.

Design and Application

Engineers remove the excess heat from the LEDs on the PCB in two ways—by using broad traces of copper to interconnect the LEDs with the rest of the circuit and by adding a solid copper base, insulating the two with a thermally conducting dielectric.

For medium power LEDs, the terminals conduct the heat generated from within the LED chip to the broad traces to which the terminals are soldered, dissipating the heat effectively. Part of the heat also travels through the thermally conducting dielectric to the solid copper base, which serves as the ultimate heat spreader.

For high power LEDs and circuits generating copious amounts of heat, additional channels are necessary to conduct more of the heat into the solid copper base. Engineers handle this with two additional mechanisms—a heat conducting metal tab under the LED or the IC attached to its internal die, and the use of metal filled thermal vias.

By incorporating a copper land immediately under the device, the IC or LED can transfer the heat from its die through the metal tab directly to the copper land. Furthermore, multiple metal filled thermal vias connecting the copper land to the solid copper base effectively transfer enough heat to the heat spreader to keep the LED or IC cool and operating safely.


At PCB Global, we consistently receive positive feedback about our customers use and application of copper based PCB’s. For more information on how copper can improve you PCB’s design and capabilities, please don’t hesitate to contact the team at sales@pcbglobal.com


Image: How heat is Dispersed

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