The US Air Force has pumped $250,000 into an innovative Kiwi study that could boost computing and laser technology.

A pioneering project being led by materials scientist Dr Fei Yang, of Waikato University's School of Engineering, will explore how combining copper and diamond can create high rates of heat transfer, to help cool down electronic devices with graphic and central processing units.

After assessing a white paper Yang submitted on the project, the US Air Force awarded him nearly $250,000.

A breakthrough could tackle a pressing problem for power-hungry electronic devices which are being worked increasingly harder, but can't work to capacity if the units within them expand and overheat.


The secret could lie in copper-diamond composites, which are synthesised from copper and artificial diamond powders, and have a potential to have very high thermal conductivity.

Yang believed the composites could prove to be the next generation of materials for heat sinks, which computers and other electronic devices use to keep themselves cool while running.

When we use devices, the computer chips within them heat up and expand, as do the heat sinks they're attached to.

But because the chips and sinks are made of different materials, they expand at different rates, which breaks or degrades the connection, ultimately making the sinks less effective.

Being able to "tune" the rate of expansion of the heat sink to match that of the chip using the new composites would maintain a good connection between the two, he said.

Yang said the technology could have a future in everything from the high-performance semiconductors found in amplifiers and super-computers, to high-power laser diodes and photonics devices.

The extra heat-conducting power could even be 50 per cent better than technology that's currently used.

But first Yang needed to solve a problem about the way copper and diamond interact - they naturally repel each other when heat is applied, acting much like beads of water on a freshly waxed car.


Yang has come up with a way that could make the metal and mineral stick - something called "wettability".

His new project aims to better control the interface between diamond and copper - particularly during the manufacturing process - and ultimately overcome the technical challenges of producing composites with high thermal conductivity.

The main experiments will be carried out at Waikato University, with further tests being done by collaborators in Germany and Australia.

Yang said US Air Force officials came on board after technical staff reviewed a detailed proposal he submitted.

"The US Air Force has a history of supporting new and innovative ideas."

He expected to complete the project within two years, with the hope of pushing it further with possible funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

US fund picks up Kiwi drone technology

Meanwhile, a New Zealand company that has developed noise-suppressing technology for drones has been signed by a US tech accelerator.

Dotterel has now become the first Kiwi firm to be accepted to TechStars - one of the most prestigious technology accelerators in the world, which connects companies to global heavy hitters.

Founded by three brothers in 2015 to address unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) noise in cinematography, Dotterel will participate in Techstar's first Asia-Pacific programme, to be held in Adelaide from mid-July.

The three-month programme will focus on defence-applicable technologies and is mentored by Boeing, Thales and Saab - three of the world's largest defence contractors.

Dotterel's chief operating officer, Shaun Edlin, said the company had the potential to be "the Dolby of drones" and its technology has possibilities for a huge range of commercial applications.

Co-founder Seamus Rowe said the company wouldn't have been picked up without the boost it got from placing runner-up in Callaghan Innovation's new C-Prize Challenge for bold Kiwi tech ventures.