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Three Key PCB Heat Dissipation Techniques

Key Takeaways

  • Learn why PCB heat dissipation techniques are important.

  • Explore common PCB heat dissipation techniques.

  • Find out how to minimize the impact of heat on a PCB.

Just about every human understands the importance of heat regulation. We come to know the potential dangers of exercising in the sun and how preventative measures must be taken to avoid things like heat stroke. In fact, most things on this planet prefer to exist in a tight temperature range and PCBs are no different. 

Care must be taken in choosing how to design and lay out PCBs to prevent heat from accumulating in certain regions, which over time could cause catastrophic failures, perhaps even causing injury. Even if no one is hurt, that excessive heat can affect performance and deteriorate the components. Therefore, this is a topic that every designer should be knowledgeable about and actively working towards controlling in their circuit designs. 

Why PCB Heat Dissipation Techniques Are Important

An overheated electronic component glowing orange on a PCB

Excessive heat can damage electronics on a PCB.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that electronics that require more power to operate will generate more heat. Components like voltage regulators, microcontrollers, and power transistors are all known to heat up when the load current increases. These are just a few examples but there are many more. 

Older mobile phones tend to heat up during anything more than short conversations. Remove the cooling fan from a laptop’s motherboard and you can soon fry an egg on the CPU. And, if those electronics are placed in an enclosure, that heat can almost double.  

Electronic components are all built to operate within a finite temperature range. If the surrounding temperature exceeds the upper limit, the components can break down. Even if it doesn’t break, the excessive heat will negatively affect the component’s performance. For example, an MCU will consume more power at high temperature compared to room temperature.

When electronic components are exposed to excessive heat over a prolonged period, their lifespan shortens. Generally, an increase of 10°C will decrease the lifespan of electronics by half. If you’re negligent in your utilization of PCB heat dissipation techniques, you’ll soon face the issues related to premature component failures. 

Common PCB Heat Dissipation Techniques

Thermal via arrays for a QFN component on a PCB

Thermal via arrays for a QFN component.

As electronics become more powerful while PCBs get smaller, heat dissipation techniques are more important than ever. Here are a few proven techniques: 

1. Thermal Via Arrays

You can turn a PCB into an onboard heat sink by incorporating thermal via arrays over copper-filled areas, as shown above. The idea behind doing so is to have heat flowing from components to the copper area and dissipating through the air from the vias. Usually, thermal via arrays are used for power management modules and components with thermal pads. 

When implementing thermal via arrays, remember that it needs to have a reasonably large diameter, in the region of 0.1 mm, for the heat to be dissipated effectively. Also, ensure the vias are not thermal-relief pads but padded holes that are connected to the copper area at all sides. Increasing the number of thermal vias further helps with heat dissipation.

2. Use Wider Traces

Copper traces that conduct high currents build up heat. Therefore, it is important to increase the width of the trace to maximize heat dissipation to the air. Doing so also reduces the thermal resistance of the trace and reduces heat spots. 

3. Use Heatsinks and Cooling Fans

Passive heat dissipation techniques like thermal via arrays may not be enough if the PCB produces more heat than can be reasonably dissipated. In such circumstances, you’ll need to include heatsinks and fans in the design.

Heatsinks are attached to components that generate the most heat, usually voltage regulators, CPUs, MCUs, and power transistors. The heatsinks are either screwed onto the PCB or left exposed to the air. In an enclosed design, a cooling fan is installed to displace that hot air into the environment. 

Minimizing Heat’s Impact on PCBs

A PCB with heat-generating components shown towards the edge

Place heat-generating components near the edge of the PCB.

Now that you are armed with the tactics, you need the strategy to execute them. Primarily, it will be ideal to separate heat-generating components and heat-sensitive ones on your PCB. By doing so, you’re able to concentrate heat dissipation efforts to a specific area. It also prevents the heat from creeping towards heat-sensitive components.

If you’re mounting the PCB vertically, heat-generating components should be placed on the top, as hot air rises. Also, the components should be placed towards the edge of the PCB to reduce the heat dissipation path into the environment. 

It is also extremely helpful to detect potential thermal hotspots with PCB design and analysis software. OrCAD’s Thermal Solver technology provides in-depth thermal analysis for PCBs so you can ensure your designs are built to last. 

If you’re looking to learn more about how Cadence has the solution for you, talk to us and our team of experts