Electric field breakdown at micrometre separations in air and vacuum

Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Microsystem Technologies (Impact Factor: 0.88). 01/1999; 6(1):6-10. DOI: 10.1007/s005420050166


At large separations, the behaviour of electrodes has been widely studied and is reasonably well understood. However, some
fundamental problems have not been properly addressed such as maximum safe operating voltages and critical dimensions required
at small separations between different types of materials. A systematic study of electrical breakdown at sub-millimetre separations
using materials commonly used in the fabrication of microdevices has been undertaken. Specimens for examination at electrode
separations from 500 nm to 25 μm have been made with different electrode configurations, such as flat to flat, flat to point
and point to point. All the tests were made in air and at differing pressures.

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    • "As a result, the breakdown voltage is underestimated at high vacuum. In fact its E B can be up to the order of MV/cm [11]. Air gap is feasible to sustain high breakdown voltage. "
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    • "The typical width of the wedge used in the prototype device is 250 µm, and the dimension of the air gap between the contacts varies between 20 to 50 µm. Previously reported breakdown voltage for a 5-µm metal-air-metal gap is 360 V [44], [45]; hence, the gap size used in our design is more than adequate for the voltages being switched. Fig. 3 shows the cross-sectional view of the bidirectional relay. "
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    • "Shea et al. [73] illustrated that the modified Paschen curve was a good guide for choosing a safe operating range when scaling MEMS electrodes to gaps lower than 5μm. However, it has been reported that the Paschen curve is not valid when the air gap between electrodes is less than 4μm, where the breakdown voltage at this range is significantly less than that predicted by the Paschen curve [78, 79]. The rapid fall-off breakdown voltage with the gap is associated with the presence of high electric fields ranging from 5×107V / m at d = 0.25μm to 108V / m at d = 4μm. "
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