At some point we have all had experiences which convinced us that metals have a high thermal conductivity. It may have been the hot spoon you left in your coffee after stirring in a little cream and sugar, or the hot door handle you grabbed on a simmering hot summer day when climbing into that now-vintage car of yours. In fact, the high thermal conductivity of metal can even account for the ability to get your tongue stuck to a metal pole in the cold of winter (or the metal screen door while waiting for the school bus as was my childhood experience). We generally understand the phenomena of metals to have a high thermal conductivity to be true, however what is the basic science behind the high thermal conductivity of metal?
In the July/August issue of Advancing Microelectronics, Dave Saums, Bob Jarrett, Andy Mackie, and Jordan Ross published an article titled, “Thermal Management Materials Choices for Power Semiconductors,” which begins to explain this.
The article describes metal generically as positive ions within a “communal sea of their valence electrons”, together providing a net neutral charge. The image above depicts this arrangement. A metal is unique because unlike non-metallics which are viewed as highly organized lattices, valence electrons of metal atoms are not strongly held by the nucleus and are highly mobile. These mobile electrons transfer electric charge as well as heat across the metallic structure. This freedom of the valence electrons accounts for the high thermal conductivity in metals. At ambient temperatures, metals are attributed with high conductance, however an additional rise in thermal conductivity is found as environmental temperatures rise. This activity can be explained using the principles explained in the Wiedemann-Franz Law.
In electronics packaging, there are many materials to choose from which will provide various thermal dissipation outcomes. Metallic materials are generally preferred for high power devices due to their high thermal conductivity, lending them for adoption in heat sinks, heat spreaders, baseplates, and even thermal interface materials as Indium is most familiar with.