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The best ways to work with reticulated foams

Reticulated foams – either metal, ceramic or polymer– are high-performance materials well suited to high-tech applications involving heating and cooling.

These materials manage to combine a number of seemingly mutually exclusive characteristics:  strong and lightweight, compact but with a high surface area, and able to be either conductive or insulating.

They are cost-effective for thermal management, adaptable to a variety of electronic devices and can be scaled in size – for example, from hybrid multi-chip modules (micro-circuits designed for harsh environments) to printed wiring boards.

The structure of reticulated foams – made up of low-density and permeable open cells and continuous ligaments resembling a 3D mesh – makes them attractive for design engineers solving heat exchange challenges in liquid and electronics cooling, filters, power electronics and electromagnetic interference (EMI) shielding.

Advances in reticulated foam production

Three of the most useful production methods to meet the needs of an application with reticulated foam and associated components are the Lost Carbonate Sintering (LCS) process, the sand-casting method and 3D printing:

  • LCS – Sintering a mixture, usually of copper and carbonate powders (i.e. using heat and compression on materials to create a solid mass) produces copper foam. Its structure is rigid, porous and permeable with a controlled density, making it versatile for various applications involving heat exchange.
  • Sand-casting method – Used to produce mainly aluminium foam parts, this method creates an exact form for a part before production, which ensures each manufactured piece is identical and delivered with a precision that removes the need for machining. This ability to design for a specific end use means it’s possible to achieve an exact structure for the desired application. Also, this metal foam – which enables fluid movement and heat recovery even at low speeds – is especially effective for heat exchange.
  • 3D printing – 3D-printed foam (with uniform structures and well-defined cellular shapes) retains its structure much better than traditional, stochastic foam (made up of non-uniform microstructures). Scientists at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that 3D-printed foam aged more slowly and retained its mechanical and structural properties better than traditional foam when exposed to high temperature and pressure.

 

Reticulated foam – from features to benefits

In summary, researchers and engineers across a range of industries can benefit from a number of reticulated foam characteristics:

  • High strength-to-weight ratio: The foam adds strength and structure when combined, for example, with other three-dimensional reinforcing fibres in composites. In general, the foam retains some of the mechanical properties of their base material, while being lightweight.  
  • High surface area-to-volume ratioUseful in developing, for example, fuel cells as well as providing a large surface area to use as a scaffold for biological growth in pollution control.
  • Conductive or insulating: Providing effective thermal or electrical conductivity or insulation against high temperatures, which make the materials useful in aerospace applications, in heat exchangers and porous electrodes.
  • Low flow resistance: Creating low pressure drop for fluid flow and therefore useful in filters, demisters, gas diffusers/mixers, liquid and gas separators – all thanks to the material’s uniform cell structure and rigid geometry.  
  • Resistance to fracture and thermal shock: Reticulated foam – with its three-dimensional, continuous ligaments – prevents cracks from extending and affecting the whole structure.

 

With the potential – in the production process – to alter the composition, pore size, density, ligament structure and shape of reticulated foam, it is possible for engineers to tailor its properties for specific applications, both established and new.