The Shocking Truth About Static Discharge Dangers

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To safeguard consumer electronics from ESD, develop a comprehensive protection strategy

By: Tim Micun, Business Development Manager  Electronics Business Unit Littelfuse, Inc.

As any first-year engineering student can tell you, electrostatic discharge (ESD) is an electrical transient that poses a serious threat to electronic circuits. The most common cause is friction between two dissimilar materials that causes electric charges to build up on their surfaces. Because of the rapidly growing use of handheld and wearable consumer electronics, one of the surfaces involved is often the human body itself; in fact, people represent the largest ESD threat of all. A person will definitely notice pain from a sudden 6kV static discharge, but these discharges can be as high as 15kV. Although lower voltage discharges sometimes go unnoticed, they can cause catastrophic damage to unprotected components and circuits.

Figure 1Figure 1: The circuits highlighted in green may experience electrical overstress (over-current, ESD, surge) and may require protection components to ensure reliable performance and/or meet regulatory standards.

ESD is characterized by fast rise times and high peak voltages and currents up to 30A (per IEC 61000- 4-2, level 4), which can melt silicon and conductor traces. See Figure 1. However, the damage caused by ESD effects is not always so apparent. ESD can actually cause three types of damage:

  • Soft failures: Electrical currents due to ESD can change the state of internal logic, causing a system to latch up or behave unpredictably, or cause corruption of a data stream. Although this effect is temporary, it may slow down communications or require a system reboot in the case of lockup.
  • Latent defects: ESD can damage a component or circuit and degrade its function even if the system continues to operate. However, this type of defect often progresses to a premature failure.
  • Catastrophic failures: ESD can damage a component to the point where it does not function as intended, or doesn’t work at all.

As IC dimensions continue to shrink, the opportunities for electronic circuit damage increase.

Most ICs operate at low voltages and have structures and conductive paths that are unable to withstand the high currents and voltages associated with ESD transients. As higher frequency communication devices are developed to transmit more information in less time, it becomes increasingly challenging to identify solutions that won’t compromise stringent signal integrity requirements at the higher data rates. The ESD suppressors used must have low internal capacitance so that data communication signals are not distorted.

Figure 2Figure 2: Portable devices like smartphones are subject to a wide variety of electrical threats.

IC designers add a limited amount of ESD suppression to their chips to help prevent damage during manufacturing and assembly processes. However, the level of protection that is added may not be sufficient to protect ICs and other semiconductor devices from ESD during actual use. Many electronic products, especially portable ones, are used in uncontrolled environments and can experience a charge buildup as users carry them. This energy can then be discharged to another device as the two are connected, usually when a user touches I/O pins on a cable connector. Therefore, end product designers need to consider adding ESD suppressors to their circuits. They also need to consider potential coupling paths that would allow ESD to enter their equipment and circuits. These weak points identify areas that should be considered for ESD suppressor installation. Ultimately, designers need to select ESD suppressors with characteristics appropriate for their type of product, the component sensitivity, and the environment where it will be used.

Narrowing their choices down to the right ESD suppression strategy requires finding a balance between equipment protection needs and operating requirements while taking the anticipated threat level into account. It’s also essential to consider potential suppression devices’ electrical characteristics and their form factor and package style. Want to learn more about how to protect consumer electronics from ESD damage? View and download the Focus on Fundamentals Course materials “Staying Connected 24/7: Safeguard Consumer Electronics with Proper Circuit Protection

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