Pololu Stepper Driver Board Heatsinking: Crude Prototype

Those cute little Pololu stepper driver boards using the Allegro A4988 chip have one conspicuous problem: there’s no good way to heatsink the chip. The doc recommends heatsinking for currents around 1 A and some informal testing shows it will trip out on thermal protect around 800 mA, so heatsinking really isn’t optional.

A thermal pad from the chip bonds to vias that conduct heat through the PCB to the bottom surface copper layer: putting a heatsink on the top doesn’t help as much as one on the bottom. What I’m doing here is a first pass at a bulk heatsink that would work with several of the driver chips lined up in a row; this one is ugly and doesn’t work well, but it should let me do some further electrical tests.

The general idea is to clamp the heatsink around the board, with the chip as the top-side pressure point. The catch: no room for an actual heatsink underneath, because that’s where the connector pins live. You could mount the board upside-down, but then there’s no good way to tweak the stepper current trimpot. That may not be a problem after you get things set up, although I’d hate to unplug and replug the board for each adjustment.

So I think a reasonable solution involves a metal strip to conduct the heat out the ends and up to the heatsink. What I’ve done here does not accomplish that; I’m just feeling around the parameter space.

You can’t get too enthusiastic with the clamping force, lest you crush the chip, so moderate pressure is the rule of the day. However, the chip sits low on the board, surrounded by taller components, so I put a drop of epoxy on top and flipped it over to produce a short thermally conductive column that’s higher than everything else:

Pololu stepper board - epoxy curing
Pololu stepper board - epoxy curing

The blue sheet comes from a trimmed-down TO-220 transistor heatsink pad; it’s thermally conductive silicone, provides a bit of compliance against the PCB, and insulates the REF trimpot test point from the heatsink.

The result looks OK, but it would be better to embed a small metal block between thinner epoxy layers to get better thermal conductivity:

Pololu stepper board - epoxy blob on driver chip
Pololu stepper board - epoxy blob on driver chip

Although most of the heat goes out the bottom, you still need something on the top to take the spring pressure. I trimmed down the TO-220 heatsink that came with that silicone pad; it must mount off-center to permit access to the trimpot but, alas, blocks the voltage monitoring pad and both sense resistors. A length of 45-mil music wire bent into a flat M  provides the spring:

Pololu stepper board - heatsink top view
Pololu stepper board - heatsink top view

The side view show how the kludge fits together:

Pololu stepper board - crude heatsink
Pololu stepper board - crude heatsink

The final result is truly ugly. The epoxy column didn’t turn out nearly as parallel to the PCB as I’d like, so some filing and finishing will be in order.

Now, to find out if it’ll allow the chip to run above 1 A for at least a while.