One of the top problems facing device manufacturers today is overheating hardware. The chips inside PCs generate heat, which — when allowed to build up — majorly hurts performance. Cooling is less of a challenge when space isn’t at a premium. But as the marketplace pushes for ever-thinner notebooks and so-called ultraportables, manufacturers are being faced with a choice: compromise on design or on raw processing power.
Seshu Madhavapeddy and Surya Ganti hope to present a third option with hardware they’ve developed at their four-year-old startup, Frore Systems. Called AirJet and weighing in at just 11 grams on the low end, the microelectromechanical chip can supposedly deliver improved thermal performance by actively removing heat from processors.
“Until now, manufacturers have used antiquated thermal solutions like mechanical fans in notebooks, tablets and other consumer devices to remove heat. These inadequate thermal solutions are causing the devices to overheat,” Madhavapeddy told TechCrunch in an email interview. “To combat this, manufacturers have designed fail-safe functionality that prevents overheating by slowing down the processor after only a few seconds of operation. This means consumers never really get the full processor performance they pay for. Frore Systems’ AirJet chips unleash full processor performance by revolutionizing active heat removal.”
Madhavapeddy and Ganti share a long history in the mobile device and semiconductor industry. Madhavapeddy was the general manager of Texas Instruments’ smartphones business line for five years, after which he led the product and technology division at Samsung Mobile, Samsung’s mobile device subsidiary. Ganti was a research scientist at General Electric for seven years, where he developed “nanotextured” surfaces and algorithms for predicting the reliability of electromechanical systems.
Madhavapeddy and Ganti met at Qualcomm while working together on the company’s ultrasonic fingerprint sensor business. Madhavapeddy says they were both inspired by what they saw as “significant” limitations that processor heat generation was creating for device performance and decided to put their heads together to solve the challenge.
In high-level language, Madhavapeddy describes AirJet — under development for the past four years — as a “solid-state” chip that uses “pulsating” air flow to cool computer parts. Several patents filed by the company peel back the curtains a bit. AirJet, which sits above the hardware it’s meant to cool, is 2.8 mm thick and built on flexible, bendable polymer materials. It contains piezoelectric layers and electrodes stacked on top of each other and oriented around a central opening. (Piezoelectric materials produce electricity when they’re compressed or placed under mechanical stress.) A diaphragm coupled to the piezoelectric layers covers the central opening, vibrating and blowing air across the hardware to be cooled when a voltage is applied to the electrodes.
Pulsating heat pipes aren’t a completely new idea. Conceived as far back as 1990, they’ve been tested in various data center server designs over the past 20 years and proposed in academic papers for use cases like phone heat sinks.
But Madhavapeddy makes the case that, as opposed to many of the designs that’ve been floated to date, Frore’s technology is market-ready. He pitches AirJet as a solution for phones, PCs and tablets otherwise too thin to fit traditional active cooling systems, like fans.
“AirJet chips are scalable, meaning multiple chips can be easily integrated into devices to cool processors silently, resulting in major performance gains,” Madhavapeddy said. “AirJet chips can also be used as the thermal solution in dust proof-devices as, unlike fans, they are powerful enough to draw air through the IP68 air filter used to make devices dust-proof.”
While Frore claims to be working with “five of the world’s top ten device manufacturers” and expects its first AirJet chips to ship in Q1 2023, it’s still too early to tell whether the startup’s tech will live up to its promises. Madhavapeddy says that AirJet can deliver a roughly “2x” boost in processor performance compared to fan-based cooling, but the vague metric doesn’t account for the wide variation in fan size, setups and housing. That aside, it’s unclear whether Frore can produce AirJet units at the scale necessary for the consumer market, and whether the company can convince manufacturers that’ve invested in alternative cooling systems, like water cooling and vapor chambers, to pivot to a completely different approach.
Frore does, however, have votes of confidence from titans in the chip industry, including Qualcomm’s venture arm, Qualcomm Ventures, which led a $100 million investment in the startup alongside Mayfield, Addition and Clear Ventures. Intel is a customer; the company plans to collaborate with Frore to build AirJet into future laptops in its Evo hardware reference platform.
“Intel’s mission with Intel Evo is to unite the open PC ecosystem to deliver the best possible laptop experiences that people want. Engineering thin, light, stylish laptop designs that offer great performance while remaining cool and quiet are foundational to that mission,” Intel VP and GM of mobile platforms Josh Newman said in a press release. “Frore Systems’ Airjet technology offers a new and novel approach to help achieve these design goals in new ways.”
But what of the slowing PC market and demand for PC parts? (According to Gartner, worldwide PC shipments declined nearly 20% in Q3 2022 compared to a year ago.) While Madhavapeddy acknowledged that it could have an impact on Frore’s business, he seemed confident that AirJet’s expanding partnerships will compensate for shipment volume shortfalls in any single segment.
“The pandemic has increased the value proposition for AirJet. The world has become increasingly mobile and reliant on devices to stay connected in both the workplace and at home… We do not anticipate the broader slowdown in tech will adversely impact Frore,” Madhavapeddy continued. “Even if demand for consumer devices slows, in a market where manufacturers are fiercely competing for the consumer spending and market share, the ability to differentiate their devices by offering superior processor performance will ensure demand for the AirJet product. This is being reflected in customer interest in and demand for AirJet.”
Headquartered in San Jose, Frore has a 75-person workforce and has raised $116 million to date. Madhavapeddy says a portion of the capital is already going toward new generations of AirJet, which will deliver further performance gains (or so he claims).