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What is Thermal Tape?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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Thermal tape is one type of adhesive that can be used between a computer chip and heatsink, typically chosen when the heatsink does not have a retention system to stay in place. Thermal tape acts as a coupler to hold the heatsink while it fills small gaps between the two surfaces to more efficiently transfer heat away from the chip. The problem with thermal tape is that it isn’t a very efficient conductor of heat. Luckily there are other options available that do a better job.

There was a time when computer processing units (CPUs) did not require heatsinks, but as the chips became more powerful, they generated more heat. When heatsinks first became available, they were added as an aftermarket option and did not have retention systems. Thermal tape provided a satisfactory solution for solving two problems: getting the sink to stay in place, and filling microscopic gaps that slowed heat transference in the surface of the chip and heatsink.

As technology advanced and heatsinks became mandatory, manufacturers began packaging them with CPUs while motherboards adopted designs to accept retention systems. Several compounds were also developed and marketed to improve heat transference with superior results to thermal tape.

Some of the materials used instead of thermal tape include grease pads, silicon and ceramic pastes, and metal-based pastes. Compounds that contain metals are generally believed to be the best conductors of heat, but if the material gets on the motherboard it can cause a short. In some cases gamers might want to attach a third party heatsink to a video card chipset, for example, where a retention system is not an option. Instead of thermal tape, an epoxy-based thermal grease might be chosen. It will transfer heat better than thermal tape, though the bond will be permanent.

CPUs that come packaged with a heatsink also come with thermal compound intended for use with the product. In many cases this is a thermal grease pad positioned on the bottom of the heatsink. All one need do is peel away the protective paper seal before installation. Often the warranty of a CPU is dependent on using the thermal material packaged with the chip and heatsink.

If a heatsink is removed from a CPU, all thermal material should be cleaned away from both surfaces, and new material applied before reinstallation. Rubbing alcohol is generally recommended for cleaning the surfaces. Check the CPU warranty or manufacturer’s website for recommendations as to which type of thermal compound to use. It is not recommended to use a CPU heatsink without applying some type of thermal grease. The chip’s core can overheat quickly and melt or become inoperable. Gamers and overclockers are encouraged to use premium thermal materials for the best results. Unfortunately, you can be virtually certain that highly affordable thermal tape will not be one of the recommendations.

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