Commercial, industrial, military, and aerospace applications use flexible heaters to deliver particular amounts of heat to specific places. The heaters serve multiple purposes, starting from warming food in cafeterias, drying the condensation on aerospace control panels, to controlling temperatures in medical equipment.
These tiny heaters are unique in the sense they are flexible. It is possible to bend them without compromising their heating operations. As flex heaters are very thin, they can squeeze into inter-component space without dislodging. However, the types of materials that make up these heaters impose certain limitations. These are temperature limitations, and the limitation on how much they can bend. Understanding these limitations is necessary for creating designs suitable for the application.
Flexible heaters are typically made from two types of materials—Polyimide and silicone rubber. The thickness of the materials used defines the amount the heater can safely bend without damage. Polyimide flex heaters with etched foil heating elements can be as thin as 0.0007 inches. This thickness allows Polyimide flex heaters to bend around multiple curves within the application.
In contrast, silicone rubber flexible heaters, with etched foil elements, can only go down to a thickness of 0.03 inches. Those with wire-wound elements can at best be 0.056 inches thin. Therefore, although the heater with etched foil elements can have a bend limitation of 1.5 inches, those with the wire-wound elements can bend still less.
Therefore, applications with curved and bent surfaces prefer using Polyimide flex heaters, and those with flat surfaces can do with either Polyimide or silicone rubber.
The range of temperatures offered by a flexible heater depends on the elements and the types of materials it uses. The application defines the temperature desired from the flex heater, depending on the ability of the system to remove the heat and disperse it away from the heater. The heat transfer is important to prevent the heater from overheating and malfunctioning.
Silicone heaters have an operating range of -70 °F (-56.66 °C) to +400 °F (204.44 °C). This makes them ideal for medium to higher temperature applications. However, they tend to fail if the environment cools below the minimum temperature.
On the other hand, Polyimide flex heaters can operate between -320 °F (-195.55 °C) and +392 °F (+200 °C). This makes Polyimide flex heaters suitable for applications working in very low temperatures, such as in spacecraft and satellites. They can help keep electronics functioning in such low temperatures.
Apart from the outer silicone rubber or the Polyimide covering, there are other structures also that add to the overall thickness. These are the solder tabs, wire connections, and other electronics that must connect to the heater.
Both silicone and Polyimide flex heaters with etched foil elements can have a maximum size of 10 X 70 inches. Their size cannot be larger as the heat produced will not be uniform. On the other hand, wire-wound elements can be as big as 36 X 144 inches. However, the wire-wound elements are strictly for silicone heaters, and suitable for large applications.