Researchers unravel the path of electrical discharges on phenomenally small scales

August 21, 2018, American Institute of Physics
Innovations on the microscale depend on understanding the behavior of electricity on the smallest of length scales. Scientists have a good grasp of "electrical breakdown," when electricity jumps across large gaps and creates plasma; however, researchers have had little insight into the behavior of electricity as it jumps across very small gaps until now. A team reports research that shines light on electrical breakdown for the smallest gap distances ever studied: 5 to 10 microns.Breakdown morphology at gap widths from 1 to 20 micrometer: (a)-(c) breakdown propagating along the shortest path with luminescence filling the surrounding area; (d)-(f) roughly constant path lengths regardless of gap width, which is consistent with the plateau of breakdown voltage in this region; and (g)-(i) no obvious breakdown channel arising at these smallest gap distances. Credit: G. Meng, et al.

Innovations in microscale electronics, medicine, combustion and scores of other technologies depend on understanding and predicting the behavior of electricity on the smallest of length scales. Scientists already have a good grasp of a phenomenon known as "electrical breakdown," when electricity jumps across large gaps and creates plasma. However, researchers have had little insight into the behavior of electricity as it jumps across very small gaps—only a few thousandths of a millimeter—until now.

A team of researchers from the United States and China reports new research that shines light on the behavior of electrical for the smallest gap distances ever studied: a mere 5 to 10 microns. (A micron is 1/1,000 of a millimeter or about 1/400,000 of an inch.)

"Our study shows the transition between gas breakdown mechanisms, or the process by which the gas becomes conductive, and the discharge path length—essentially how the electrons flow during their collisions with gas molecules, at very small scales," said Allen Garner at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and co-author of the paper published in the Physics of Plasmas.

The researchers found that at these microscopic gap distances, no obvious discharge channel formed, meaning the breakdown did not originate from the avalanche mechanism found in larger gaps. Breakdown in small gaps also involves direct ion field emission from the positively charged gap surface. They also noted that the voltage necessary for decreased linearly with decreasing gap distance at these smaller scales.

To conduct their research, the team used an electrical-optical measurement system, which integrated a high-magnification optical microscope with a high-speed ICCD camera, to measure the breakdown voltages and determine breakdown morphology (discharge shape and path length) as a function of gap width.

"Understanding the fundamental mechanism of gas breakdown at microscale will have far-reaching impact on practical devices due to the numerous applications that leverage microplasmas, including excimer laps, arrays for flat-panel light sources, medicine, environmental remediation, and combustion," said Guodong Meng, from Xi'an Jiaotong University in China and lead author on the study.

"The importance of understanding breakdown at these smaller gaps relates these efforts to ongoing research on in vacuum electronics and motivates future work, unifying the various theories of electron emission and gas breakdown," Garner said.

Explore further: Protecting the power grid: Advanced plasma switch for more efficient transmission

More information: "Demonstration of field emission driven microscale gas breakdown for pulsed voltages using in-situ optical imaging," Physics of Plasmas (2018). DOI: 10.1063/1.5046335

Related Stories

Vacuum arcs spark new interest

November 8, 2010

Whenever two pieces of metal at different voltages are brought near each other, as when an appliance is plugged into a live socket, there is a chance there will be an arc between them. Most of the arcs people see are a breakdown ...

Measuring Electrical Arcs At the Micrometer Scale

March 30, 2006

Air is a great insulator—except when it becomes a conductor. Under the right conditions, miniature lightning bolts of electricity will “arc” through the air between two electrically conducting points. Engineers can ...

Recommended for you

CMS gets first result using largest-ever LHC data sample

February 15, 2019

Just under three months after the final proton–proton collisions from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)'s second run (Run 2), the CMS collaboration has submitted its first paper based on the full LHC dataset collected in ...

Gravitational waves will settle cosmic conundrum

February 14, 2019

Measurements of gravitational waves from approximately 50 binary neutron stars over the next decade will definitively resolve an intense debate about how quickly our universe is expanding, according to findings from an international ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Hyperfuzzy
1 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2018
Still don't get it. Every field center responds, collectively, duh.
Hyperfuzzy
1 / 5 (2) Aug 24, 2018
Path? For charge centers or the potential? Well the objects in the path and the object moving is something well understood. I don't understand, only the field center exist. What you doing is trying to measure something you have not properly defined. It's not like we don't know!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.