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What is an LED Heatsink?

By Marco Sumayao
Updated May 16, 2024
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Light emitting diodes (LED) are popular lighting choices in computers, most often in indicator lights and monitors. LEDs are known for their efficient lighting; they generate light with minimal energy use. Despite this efficiency, however, LEDs are also known to produce heat that can potentially damage the device. An LED heatsink is any substance or device that can counteract the harmful effects of this heat, either by cooling the LED or by diverting the heat generated. The use of a heatsink can dramatically reduce heat, even in high-powered LEDs.

An LED heatsink can work in either of two ways: as a passive heatsink or as an active heatsink. A passive LED heatsink, when attached to an LED mechanism, diverts much of the generated heat away from the LED and into itself. To this end, most LED heatsink devices in the market are made of conductive metal. Some researchers, however, experiment with gels and other substances for use as heatsinks.

In the same fashion, an active LED heatsink also draws heat away from the LED. The addition of a fan further increases the heatsink's cooling capabilities, making active heatsinks a popular choice among computer owners. Although an active LED heatsink does provide stronger cooling, the power needed to run the fan diminishes the energy efficiency of the LED. Active LED heatsinks are also less effective without an adequate amount of ventilation holes in the computer's frame.

Both a fanless heatsink and an active one are attached to the LED device using connectors that are themselves effective in diverting heat. In some cases, a carbon steel heatsink clip can be used to attach an LED heatsink to the device. In others, a special heatsink paste can hold the LED heatsink firmly in place. Both options are effective in attaching the heatsink to the device, but heatsink paste is more often preferred due to the minimal weight it adds. The weight difference can be significant in reducing the strain on some computer boards.

Much research is put into creating an efficient high-powered LED heatsink. With energy efficiency a high priority in developing technologies, many manufacturers are turning to high-powered LEDs, which can provide an even greater amount of light than average LEDs. One major drawback to high-powered LEDs, however, is that they also produce a much higher amount of heat. As a result, heat management is a crucial consideration for manufacturers hoping to utilize high-powered LEDs.

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Discussion Comments
By Charred — On Jul 24, 2011

@David09 - I am not a gamer, but I did buy a gaming PC mainly because I wanted the performance for my graphics and digital applications.

My computer has an LED light strip, making it look kind of space age and alien like. I don’t know if it generates all that much LED heat. I think probably not because the lights are external, so maybe it all dissipates.

But the point is that I’m not aware of it, and I would think that in general the LED lights generate less heat than regular light bulbs.

By David09 — On Jul 24, 2011

@miriam98 - Yeah, I’ve used heat sinks attached to an AMD processor.

The most common heat sink material is aluminum because it transfers the heat better. I think these would be classified as active heat sinks.

It’s too bad AMD forces you to go the extra mile and add this stuff yourself. Perhaps that’s part of why the computers are cheaper, but I hardly think that would be the case. The heat sinks are not that expensive.

My personal opinion is that they leave it up to the end user because they know that a lot of users will be using these computers for graphics and gaming applications.

Perhaps they want to let the users decide how they want to cool their systems down. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve heard of some extreme gamers using ice and cooling systems to cool their chips when they over clock their computers and push them to the bleeding edge of performance.

By miriam98 — On Jul 23, 2011

I think heat sink cooling is part art, part science, whether you’re talking about cooling the LEDs in your computer or the actual CPU itself.

I remember not too long ago owning an AMD computer. These computers are legendary for being fast and inexpensive, compared to Intel PCs – however they have a design flaw.

They tend to overheat. That’s because they don’t have the same cooling mechanism as the Intel. From what I understand, Intel chips have the heat sink gels layered onto the chips or something like that, whereas AMD chips don’t.

Well, it got to the point that my AMD would overheat so much that it would shut down. I wasn’t a gamer, and I wasn’t over clocking it in any way. The only way to counteract the heat generated was to leave the computer panel removed and add a fan heat sink. That did the trick, but it sure was an unusual workaround.

By browncoat — On Jul 23, 2011

@pleonasm - I think a lot of people think there is simply no heat involved with LEDs.

And it's true they give off a lot less heat than metal halide lamps, or even VHOs but they are also more sensitive to heat and you often have to group quite a few of them in a homemade lamp system.

So, putting in a LED heat sink is not just for the health of your creatures, it also extends the life of your bulbs, as well as protecting your hood.

I think the best heat sink systems also act as an insulator for you so you never burn yourself on the bulbs, and might also help reflect the light back so that you don't need so many bulbs.

An efficient design is the key.

By pleonasm — On Jul 22, 2011

LED heatsinks are also becoming increasingly popular for aquariums, but they are still quite expensive to buy upfront. So, a lot of people try to make their own lighting array.

This is more complicated than it sounds, as you have to take into account the light spectrum that you need, the power of the lights and other factors as well, including a heat sink.

Most decent tutorials online will mention a heat sink and explain how you can make one as well.

But don't take it for granted that they all will. Make sure you include one or your fish and corals could be damaged or even killed.

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