Heatsink Optimization

Nathan Blattau

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Optimal design of a heatsink, meeting program targets for cost, weight, size, and performance, is one of the more challenging activities within most electronics engineering teams. Without a dedicated solver, designers or thermal engineers can be involved in a game of ‘opinioneering’, which typically involves overdesign, or initiate an expensive and time-consuming physical design of experiments that provides limited results

In the case study below, DfR worked to optimize an extruded aluminum heat sink for an IGBT module in a low-cost, high-volume design. Reliability requirements (10-year life), harsh environments (vibration, elevated temperature), limited ability to perform maintenance (consumer household), and cost constraints eliminated forced air cooling as a practical solution. The focus was instead to optimize the design within the dimensional constraints provided by the end-user.

IGBT Module

Optimization was requested because the IGBT module starts to behave intermittently at 60°C and shuts down completely at 65°C. The module shutdowns due to a thermal cutoff limit of 100°C at the internal thermistor. The data sheet for the IGBT module indicates that the cutoff temperature of the IGBT junction temperature is 150°C. The module thermal resistances are supplied by the manufacturer and are shown in Figure 1.

The goal of this analysis was to reduce the thermistor temperature during operation such that the module achieves stable operation at 60°C and shutdown at or above 65°C. To achieve this goal, the case temperature of the IGBT must be decreased. This increase in the operating margin will be achieved by modifying the relevant heatsink parameters. The baseline heatsink dimensions are displayed in Figure 2.

heat fig 1-2

Model Calibration

A thermal analysis of the original heatsink design was conducted to baseline the thermal model. A thermal image of the heatsink while the IGBT module is dissipating 40 watts at 20°C is shown in Figure 3 (left image). The maximum heat sink temperature is measured as 90.1C, or a 70.1C rise above ambient.

The results of thermal simulation at 40 watts at 20C are also shown in Figure 3 (right image). The maximum temperature rise was predicted to be 75.7C. The difference between measured and predicted is within 6%, which is a reasonable margin of error.

heat fig 3

Design of Experiments

The heatsink parameters assessed in this design optimization study are presented in Table 1. Number of fins, fin height, location of heat source, and surface treatment were all assessed in terms of their ability to lower IGBT case temperature

heat table 1


When the calibrated model is run at the desired use condition of 20 watts at 60°C ambient, the case temperature rise is 43.1°C over ambient (see Figure 4). This clearly explains the intermittent operation of the IGBT under these conditions and indicates that for the heatsink optimization to be successful, the new heatsink design must reduce case temperatures by at least 5 and preferably 10C1.

heat fig 4

Heat source location

The effect of moving the heat source was simulated at 60°C ambient conditions. Moving the heat source to the heatsink center had little effect on the performance (<1oC temperature change), as shown in Figure 5. Moving the heat source above the centerline increased the temperature by almost 3°C, as shown in Figure 6.

heat fig 5-6

Heatsink Fin Height

The effect of changing the fin height was modeled at 60°C ambient conditions. Increasing the fin height by 0.25” decreased the temperatures by 5.5°C, as shown in Figure 7. Increasing the fin height by 0.5” decreased the operating temperature by 10°C. This indicates that the module will be running at 93.6°C.

Increasing the ambient temperature to 65°C has a minimal impact on the temperature rise. At 65°C the IGBT module will be operating at 98.7°C and should be at the limitations of its operating range. Further modifications of the heatsink should be done to increase this margin.

heat fig 7-8

Effect of Anodized Surface

The effect of radiation heat transfer is very important in natural convection, as it can be responsible of up to 25% of the total heat dissipation2. The capability of a material to radiate heat is given by its emissivity. Extruded low-cost aluminum has a relatively low emissivity (0.02 to 0.2), which can impede its thermal performance.

One way to improve emissivity of aluminum is through an anodization treatment. Anodization is an electrochemical treatment process that introduces a relatively thin layer of oxide. When the treatment is combined with a black dye3, it can increase emissivity to almost 0.9.

To assess the impact of anodization, the emissivity was increased from 0.4 to 0.9 for the model with the as designed fin height. The model was then run with the 0.5” added to the fin height. The results are shown in Figure 9 and Figure 10. Increasing the emissivity alone on the heatsink is not sufficient to drop the operating temperature below 100°C when operating at 65°C and should be combined with additional fin height which should place the operating temperature at about 94.3°C at 65°C ambient.

heat fig 9-10


Using more standardized optimization techniques, it was determined that fin height and anodization had the greatest ability to drop case temperatures below 100C when the IGBT was dissipating 20 watts at 65°C ambient. Orientation of the heat source and fin count had minimal effects.

Analysis Information

This white paper may include results obtained through analysis performed by DfR Solutions’ Sherlock software. This comprehensive tool is capable of identifying design flaws and predicting product performance. For more information, please contact DfRSales@dfrsolutions.com.


DfR represents that a reasonable effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information within this white paper. However, DfR Solutions makes no warranty, both express and implied, concerning the content of this report, including, but not limited to the existence of any latent or patent defects, merchantability, and/or fitness for a particular use. DfR will not be liable for loss of use, revenue, profit, or any special, incidental, or consequential damages arising out of, connected with, or resulting from, the information presented within this white paper.


1.  Interesting finding within the DoE: At 20C and 40W, the optimum number of fins is six (6). However, when the ambient temperature is increased to 60C, but the power dissipation is lowered to 20W, the optimum number of fins drops to five (5).

2.  Aavid Thermalloy, Selecting a Heat Sink

3.  Anodized aluminum does not have to be black. It can be clear or one of many colors