ESD is More Dangerous Than You Might Think

There is a lot of misinformation out there around Electrostatic Discharge. We see it all the time, organizations that try all sorts of shoes and tables and floor coatings and other types of protection that half the time cause more problems than they solve. They can restrict movement and create additional trip hazards or just generally be unreliable and allow workers to get shocked and/or equipment to get damaged.

So, let’s start at the top. An Electrostatic Discharge event is when a static charge is bled off in an uncontrolled fashion and will be referred to as ESD hereafter.

ESD comes in many forms, it can be as small as 50 volts of electricity being equalized up to tens of thousands of volts. It usually takes several thousand volts for a person to even notice ESD in the form of a spark and the familiar zap that accompanies it. The problem with ESD is even a small discharge that can go completely unnoticed can ruin semiconductors. A static charge of thousands of volts is common, however, the reason it is not life threatening is there is no current of any substantial duration behind it. These extreme voltages do allow ionization of the air and allow other materials to break down, which is the root of where the damage comes from.

ESD is not a new problem. Black powder manufacturing and other pyrotechnic industries have always been dangerous if an ESD event occurs in the wrong circumstance. During the era of tubes (AKA valves), ESD was a nonexistent issue for electronics, but with the advent of semiconductors, and the increase in miniaturization, it has become much more serious.

Damage to components can, and usually do, occur when the part is in the ESD path. Many parts, such as power diodes, are very robust and can handle the discharge, but if a part has a small or thin geometry as part of their physical structure then the voltage can break down that part of the semiconductor. Currents during these events become quite high but are in the nanosecond to microsecond time frame. Part of the component is left permanently damaged by this, which can cause two types of failure modes: catastrophic and latent. Catastrophic is the easy one, leaving the part completely nonfunctional. The other can be much more serious. Latent damage may allow the problem component to work for hours, days or even months after the initial damage before catastrophic failure. Many times, these parts are referred to as “walking wounded” since they are working but bad. The figure below is shown as an example of latent (“walking wounded”) ESD damage. If these components end up in a life support role, such as medical or military use, then the consequences can be grim.

Before ESD can be prevented it is important to understand what causes it. Generally, materials around the workbench can be broken up into 3 categories. These are ESD Generative, ESD Neutral, and ESD Dissipative (or ESD Conductive). ESD Generative materials are active static generators, such as most plastics, cat hair, and polyester clothing. ESD Neutral materials are generally insulative but don’t tend to generate or hold static charges very well. Examples of this include wood, paper, and cotton. This is not to say they can not be static generators or an ESD hazard, but the risk is somewhat minimized by other factors. Wood and wood products, for example, tend to hold moisture, which can make them slightly conductive. This is true of a lot of organic materials. A highly polished table would not fall under this category because the gloss is usually plastic, or varnish, which are highly efficient insulators. ESD Conductive materials are pretty obvious, they are the metal tools laying around. Plastic handles can be a problem, but the metal will bleed a static charge away as fast as it is generated if it is on a grounded surface. There are a lot of other materials, such as some plastics, that are designed to be conductive. They would fall under the heading of ESD Dissipative. Dirt and concrete are also conductive and fall under the ESD Dissipative heading.

There are a lot of activities that generate static, which you need to be aware of as part of an ESD control regimen. The simple act of pulling the tape off a dispenser can generate an extreme voltage. Rolling around in a chair is another static generator, as is scratching. In fact, any activity that allows 2 or more surfaces to rub against each other is pretty certain to generate some static charge.

High humidity in the air will also allow a static charge to dissipate harmlessly away, as well as making ESD Neutral materials more conductive. This is why cold winter days, where the humidity inside a house can be quite low, can increase the number of sparks on a doorknob. Summer, or rainy days, you would have to work quite hard to generate a substantial amount of static. Industry clean rooms and factory floors go the effort to regulate both temperature and humidity