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Electrostatic discharge (ESD) is the sudden flow of electricity between two objects caused by contact, an electrical short, or dielectric breakdown. ESD can be caused by a buildup of static electricity by tribocharging, or by electrostatic induction.
ESD includes spectacular electric sparks, but also less dramatic forms which may be neither seen nor heard, yet still be large enough to cause damage to sensitive electronic devices. Electric sparks require a field strength above about 4 KV/cm in air, as notably occurs in lightning strikes. Other forms of ESD include corona discharge from sharp electrodes and brush discharge from blunt electrodes.
ESD can cause a range of harmful effects, including methane gas and coal dust explosions, as well as failure of solid state electronics components such as integrated circuits. These can suffer permanent damage when subjected to high voltages. Electronics manufacturers therefore establish electrostatic protective areas free of static, using measures to prevent charging such as avoiding highly charging materials, and measures to remove static such as grounding human workers, providing antistatic devices, and controlling humidity.
The most spectacular form of ESD is the spark, which occurs when a heavy electric field creates an ionized conductive channel in air. This can cause minor discomfort to people, severe damage to electronic equipment, and fires and explosions if the air contains combustible gases or particles.
However, many ESD events occur without a visible or audible spark. A person carrying a relatively small electric charge may not feel a discharge that is sufficient to damage sensitive electronic components. Some devices may be damaged by discharges as small as 30V. These invisible forms of ESD can cause outright device failures, or less obvious forms of degradation that may affect the long term reliability and performance of electronic devices. The degradation in some devices may not become evident until well into their service life.
Prevention of ESD bases on Electrostatic Protective Area (EPA). EPA can be a small working station or a large manufacturing area. The main principle of an EPA is that there are no highly charging materials in the vicinity of ESD sensitive electronics, all conductive materials are grounded, workers are grounded, and charge build-up on ESD sensitive electronics is prevented. International standards are used to define typical EPA and can be found for example from International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) or American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
ESD prevention within an EPA may include using appropriate ESD-safe packing material, the use of conductive filaments on garments worn by assembly workers, conducting wrist straps and foot-straps to prevent high voltages from accumulating on workers' bodies, anti-static mats or conductive flooring materials to conduct harmful electric charges away from the work area, and humidity control. Humid conditions prevent electrostatic charge generation because the thin layer of moisture that accumulates on most surfaces serves to dissipate electric charges.
Ion generators are sometimes used to inject ions into the ambient airstream. Ionization systems help to neutralize charged surface regions on insulative or dielectric materials. Insulating materials prone to triboelectric charging should be kept away from sensitive devices to prevent accidental charging of devices through induction. On aircraft, static dischargers are used on the trailing edges of wings and other surfaces.
Manufacturers and users of integrated circuits must take precautions to avoid ESD. ESD prevention can be part of the device itself and include special design techniques for device input and output pins. External protection components can also be used with circuit layout.
Due to dielectric nature of electronics component and assemblies, electrostatic charging can not be completely prevented during handling of devices. Most of ESD sensitive electronic assemblies and components are also so small that manufacturing and handling is made with automated equipment. ESD prevention activities are therefore important with those processes where component is touching on equipment surfaces. In addition, it is important to prevent ESD when an electrostatic discharge sensitive component is connected with other conductive parts of the product itself. An efficient way to prevent ESD is to use materials that are not too conductive but will slowly conduct static charges away. These materials are called static dissipative and have resistivity values in the range of 105 to 1011 ohm-meters. Materials in automated manufacturing which will touch on conductive areas of ESD sensitive electronic should be made of dissipative material, and the dissipative material must be grounded.