In 1980, high-performance computing was becoming limited by the heat dissipated in semiconductor chips. IBM was introducing a new chip packaging technology that featured a specific thermal conductance of about 5000 W/m2·°C and occupied approximately 1 liter of space in order to cool 300 W. IBM was also developing a superconducting computer technology to circumvent the thermal problem posed by continued scaling of semiconductor chips. The following year, two of us (DBT and RFWP) showed theoretically and experimentally that by scaling down the dimensions of a conventional plate-fin liquid-cooled heat sink to a channel width of ∼50 μm, operating in the laminar flow regime, and integrated within the silicon chip, we could achieve in a laboratory demonstration at least a 20-fold improvement in specific thermal conductance, and more than 1000-fold greater volumetric heat removal. The reception of this advance was mixed, but what really stalled its adoption was the emergence of high-speed low-power CMOS semiconductor circuitry. Two decades later even scaled CMOS circuitry was getting too hot, and various commercialization attempts were then undertaken; some were successful, others not. New commercialization opportunities are now appearing including ones that enable society’s more efficient use of energy. A specific example of one such opportunity will be described, i.e., the use of microchannels in a novel, highly efficient regenerative heat-exchanger configuration, intended for heat-treating low-viscosity liquids for purposes such as pasteurization. Water was successfully heat-treated in continuous-flow tests of an experimental scaled-down prototype ultrahigh-temperature (UHT) pasteurizer incorporating a linear counterflow microchannel (50 μm parallel-plate channel separation) heat exchanger having an integrated electric heater at the hot end. The use of an integral electric heater permitted a unique manifold-less arrangement for reversing the flow directions at the hot end, wherein perfect local mass balance was enforced locally (i.e., between every pair of adjacent counter-flowing microchannels), eliminating a major potential source of flow maldistribution that would have otherwise reduced heat-exchanger effectiveness. Water entered the device at room temperature, steadily heated to 135°C in about 2.5 s, was maintained at 135°C for ∼2.5 s, and then cooled in ∼2.5 s, exiting at no more than 2°C above its original temperature, indicative of high heat-exchanger effectiveness. Heat leaks to ambient air required an excess of heater power, but those could be mostly eliminated in a scaled-up design and with proper attention to exterior insulation. Subsequent tests with milk flowing in heated microchannels revealed that fouling can be a severe problem (perhaps exacerbated by the long-tailed residence-time distribution characteristic of laminar flow), limiting continuous use to less than 2 hours for UHT pasteurization conditions. Conventional high-temperature short-time (HTST) milk pasteurization employs much lower peak temperatures and it is more likely that a practical microchannel system could be constructed for that application.

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