How to Calculate Thermal Conductivity in Printed Wiring Boards

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What is Thermal Conductivity and Why is it Important for Printed Wiring Boards?

Thermal conductivity is a measure of a material’s ability to conduct heat. It is defined as the rate of heat transfer through a material per unit thickness per unit area per unit temperature difference. In other words, it quantifies how well a substance can transfer thermal energy from one point to another.

Thermal conductivity is a critical property to consider when designing and manufacturing printed wiring boards (PWBs), also known as printed circuit boards (PCBs). PWBs are used in virtually all modern electronic devices to mechanically support and electrically connect electronic components using conductive pathways, tracks, or signal traces etched from copper sheets laminated onto a non-conductive substrate.

During operation, electronic components on a PWB generate heat. If this heat is not effectively dissipated, it can lead to component failure, reduced performance, and shortened product lifespan. The thermal conductivity of the materials used in a PWB, including the substrate, copper traces, and any thermal interface materials, plays a crucial role in determining the board’s overall thermal management capabilities.

Higher thermal conductivity allows heat to be transferred more efficiently from hot spots (such as power-hungry components) to cooler areas of the board or to external heat sinks. This helps maintain components within their safe operating temperature ranges, ensures reliable performance, and prolongs the life of the electronic device.

Therefore, accurately calculating and optimizing the thermal conductivity of a PWB is essential for designing boards that can effectively manage heat dissipation, particularly in applications involving high power densities or temperature-sensitive components.

Factors Affecting Thermal Conductivity in PWBs

Several factors influence the thermal conductivity of a printed wiring board:

1. Material Properties

The thermal conductivity of a PWB is primarily determined by the properties of the materials used in its construction. Key materials include:

  • Substrate: The non-conductive base material of the PWB, typically made from FR-4 (a composite of fiberglass and epoxy resin) or other laminate materials. The thermal conductivity of the substrate is usually lower than that of the copper traces.

  • Copper traces: The conductive pathways that carry electrical signals and power. Copper has a relatively high thermal conductivity compared to the substrate material.

  • Thermal interface materials (TIMs): Materials used to enhance heat transfer between components and the board, such as Thermal Pads, gap fillers, or thermal greases. The thermal conductivity of TIMs can vary widely depending on their composition.

2. Board Geometry

The physical layout and dimensions of the PWB also affect its thermal conductivity:

  • Layer count: Multi-layer Boards with more copper layers generally have better thermal conductivity than single-layer boards, as the additional copper provides more pathways for heat dissipation.

  • Copper thickness: Thicker copper traces have lower electrical resistance and higher thermal conductivity, allowing for better heat transfer.

  • Trace width and spacing: Wider traces and smaller spacing between traces can enhance thermal conductivity by providing more cross-sectional area for heat flow.

3. Operating Conditions

The thermal conductivity of a PWB can be influenced by its operating environment:

  • Temperature: The thermal conductivity of materials can vary with temperature. Some materials may exhibit increased thermal conductivity at higher temperatures, while others may show decreased performance.

  • Humidity: High humidity levels can affect the thermal conductivity of hygroscopic materials like FR-4, as moisture absorption can change the material’s properties.

  • Airflow: Adequate airflow around the PWB can help convect heat away from the board, enhancing overall thermal management.

By understanding these factors, designers can make informed decisions about material selection, board layout, and operating conditions to optimize the thermal conductivity of a PWB.

Methods for Calculating Thermal Conductivity in PWBs

There are several methods for calculating the thermal conductivity of a printed wiring board, each with its own advantages and limitations. Some common approaches include:

1. Analytical Methods

Analytical methods involve using mathematical equations and material properties to calculate the thermal conductivity of a PWB. One widely used analytical approach is the Effective Thermal Conductivity (ETC) method.

The ETC method calculates the overall thermal conductivity of a multi-layer PWB by considering the thermal conductivities and thicknesses of the individual layers. The equation for ETC is:

ETC = (Σ(Ki * ti)) / (Σti)

Ki is the thermal conductivity of layer i
ti is the thickness of layer i

This method assumes that heat flow is one-dimensional and perpendicular to the board surface, and that the thermal conductivity of each layer is uniform. While the ETC method provides a simple and quick way to estimate a board’s thermal conductivity, it may not account for more complex heat flow patterns or localized variations in thermal properties.

2. Numerical Methods

Numerical methods involve using computational tools and algorithms to simulate heat transfer in a PWB and calculate its thermal conductivity. The most common numerical approach is Finite Element Analysis (FEA).

FEA divides the PWB into small, discrete elements and applies the heat transfer equations to each element, considering material properties, boundary conditions, and heat sources. By solving the equations simultaneously, FEA can provide a detailed, three-dimensional picture of temperature distribution and heat flow in the board.

Advantages of FEA include:
– Ability to handle complex geometries and multi-layer structures
– Consideration of localized variations in thermal properties
– Visualization of temperature gradients and hot spots
– Optimization of board layout and material selection through parametric studies

However, FEA requires specialized software, significant computational resources, and a good understanding of the underlying physics and modeling techniques.

3. Experimental Methods

Experimental methods involve measuring the thermal conductivity of a PWB directly using specialized equipment and techniques. One common approach is the Guarded Hot Plate method.

In this method, a PWB sample is placed between two temperature-controlled plates. One plate is heated to a fixed temperature, while the other is maintained at a lower temperature. The heat flux through the sample is measured, and the thermal conductivity is calculated using Fourier’s law:

q = -k * (dT/dx)

q is the heat flux (W/m^2)
k is the thermal conductivity (W/(m·K))
dT/dx is the temperature gradient (K/m)

Experimental methods provide accurate, real-world data on a PWB’s thermal conductivity, taking into account the actual material properties, manufacturing processes, and environmental conditions. However, they require specialized equipment, are time-consuming, and may not be feasible for large-scale or rapid testing.

Best Practices for Optimizing Thermal Conductivity in PWB Design

To ensure optimal thermal management in printed wiring boards, consider the following best practices during the design process:

  1. Choose materials with high thermal conductivity: When selecting substrate materials, copper thicknesses, and thermal interface materials, prioritize options with higher thermal conductivity to facilitate efficient heat transfer.

  2. Maximize copper coverage: Increase the amount of copper in the board by using thicker traces, larger copper pours, and more layers. This helps spread heat more evenly across the board and reduces Thermal Resistance.

  3. Optimize trace layout: Arrange traces to minimize the distance between heat-generating components and heat sinks or other cooling solutions. Avoid long, narrow traces that can act as thermal bottlenecks.

  4. Use thermal vias: Incorporate thermal vias (small, plated holes) to provide low-resistance paths for heat transfer between layers. Place thermal vias strategically near heat-generating components and in areas with high thermal gradients.

  5. Implement copper pours: Use copper pours (large areas of copper) on the outer layers of the board to help spread heat and provide a low-resistance path to heat sinks or other cooling solutions.

  6. Consider thermal interface materials: Apply thermal interface materials, such as thermal pads or thermal greases, between components and the board to enhance heat transfer and minimize air gaps.

  7. Conduct thermal simulations: Utilize FEA or other thermal simulation tools to analyze the temperature distribution and identify potential hot spots in the board design. Use these insights to optimize the layout, material selection, and cooling strategies.

  8. Validate with experimental testing: Whenever possible, perform experimental thermal conductivity measurements on prototype boards to verify the effectiveness of the design and identify any areas for improvement.

By following these best practices and carefully considering the factors affecting thermal conductivity, designers can create PWBs with optimal thermal management capabilities, ensuring reliable performance and longevity in electronic devices.


Table 1: Thermal Conductivity of Common PWB Materials

Material Thermal Conductivity (W/(m·K))
FR-4 (substrate) 0.25 – 0.35
Copper (traces) 385 – 400
Aluminum (heat sinks) 205 – 220
Thermal pad (silicone) 1 – 5
Thermal grease 2 – 8

Table 2: Effect of Copper Thickness on Thermal Conductivity

Copper Thickness (oz) Thermal Conductivity Improvement
0.5 Baseline
1 50 – 70%
2 100 – 150%
3 150 – 200%


  1. What is the most important factor affecting thermal conductivity in PWBs?
    The most important factor affecting thermal conductivity in PWBs is the choice of materials, particularly the substrate and copper traces. Materials with higher inherent thermal conductivity will allow for more efficient heat transfer across the board.

  2. How does the number of layers in a PWB affect its thermal conductivity?
    In general, increasing the number of layers in a PWB will improve its thermal conductivity. More layers provide additional pathways for heat transfer, allowing heat to spread more evenly across the board and reducing thermal resistance.

  3. Can thermal vias significantly improve the thermal conductivity of a PWB?
    Yes, thermal vias can significantly improve the thermal conductivity of a PWB by providing low-resistance paths for heat transfer between layers. When placed strategically near heat-generating components and in areas with high thermal gradients, thermal vias can help distribute heat more efficiently and reduce hot spots.

  4. What are some common thermal interface materials used in PWBs?
    Common thermal interface materials used in PWBs include thermal pads (often made of silicone or other polymers), thermal greases (which can fill small air gaps and improve contact between surfaces), and gap fillers (thixotropic materials that can conform to irregular surfaces).

  5. Why is it important to validate PWB thermal performance with experimental testing?
    While analytical and numerical methods can provide valuable insights into a PWB’s thermal conductivity, experimental testing is essential to validate the actual performance under real-world conditions. Experimental measurements account for factors such as manufacturing variability, material property variations, and environmental conditions that may not be fully captured in simulations. Testing prototypes allows designers to identify any issues and optimize the design before mass production.