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IEEE Transactions on Electrical Insulation Vol. EI-17 No.6, December 1982
J. J. O'Dwyer Department of Physics SUNY/College at Oswego Oswego, NY
This paper summarizes several aspects of breakdown in solid dielectrics, with emphasis on the distinction between electrical and thermal effects. Several current theories are discussed.
All breakdown in solid dielectrics is ultimately thermal in the sense that the discharge track involves at least the melting and probably the vaporization of the dielectric. In common usage, the classification of a breakdown process as thermal means that it can be satisfactorily explained using reasonable extrapolations of the electrical and thermal conductivities from values that obtain substantially below breakdown. Conversely we classify breakdown as purely electrical when it cannot be explained as due to processes that are not in evidence until very close to breakdown.
In this paper we propose to review the historic milestones in the ongoing search for a theory of dielectric breakdown in solids, and to comment on the value and significance of the ideas presented. Finally, we discuss current approaches to the problem, and the different aspects of the phenomenon on which they might be expected to shed some light.
The computed results are shown in Fig. 1; the major features are a constant breakdown voltage for thick slabs (AD >> 2K), and a constant value of voltage divided by the square root of thickness for thin slabs (AD « 2K). The importance of this work lies in the demonstration that increasing dielectric thickness or electrode cooling do not raise the breakdown voltage beyond a given value for any dielectric at given ambient temperature. The frustration of this very complete calculation arises in applications to room temperature conditions. Efficient electrode cooling produces critical voltages so high as to be infinite for all practical purposes; on the other hand, low electrode cooling leads to critical voltages that can be made as small as one wishes. Since electrode cooling is often a very poorly defined parameter in practical situations, the theory gives the critical voltage as lying somewhere in the range of zero to infinity!
Recent revived interest in the thermal breakdown problem has centered on the distortion of the electric field distribution that results from the temperature-controlled variation of the electrical conductivity. Wintle  has investigated steady-state solutions for various functional forms of the electrical and thermal conductivities, and Beers and O'Dwyer  computed transient solutions for various electrode geometries. Depending mainly on ambient temperature, the field adjacent to a well-cooled electrode can be as large as several times the value that would be inferred from the geometry of the electrodes. This could be important in the explanation of the decreasing breakdown strength (as a function of temperature) that is observed in many substances above about 100°C. The breakdown mechanism itself may not be thermal, but it may occur at lower mean field strengths because of thermally induced field distortion.
Most dielectrics show increasing electrical conductivity and decreasing thermal conductivity as the temperature increases. For this reason, breakdown at high
temperatures tends to be thermal in nature. Much of the early experimental work was at high temperatures, or under conditions in which the electrodes were poor heat sinks; as a consequence, thermal breakdown was studied extensively. The basic equation for thermal breakdown is
-t div (K grad T) = E2 -
where the symbols have their usual meaning.
0018-9367/82/1200-0484*00.75 Cs 1982 IEEE
0 E EIO . However.o 0 PURELY ELECTRICAL BREAKDOWN Early scientific work on the breakdown of thin single crystal dielectrics gave rise to the impression that breakdown field strength depended only on the dielectric substance and the temperature . this theory did not include the important effect of the space charge due to the collision ionization products. this theory provides no complete account of breakdown. and AV is the energy range of shallow traps below the conduction band of the dielectric. Thickness (mm) Ec = ( exp(Kw/wkT) -1 w (4) crystal parameters. and Frohlich  gave another formula for amorphous dielectrics I 102 I0 10-2 d=AD/ 2K 102 104 Fig. 15 d = XD/2K where VO is the applied voltage and temperature. pretend to give a full account of the breakdown process. . 2: Thickness dependence of the breakdown strength of NaCl. 1: Numerical solution in dimensionless form for thermal breakdown of a dielectric sZab with placne parallel electrodes. and not just the dielectric alone. The experimentaZ data are: o Watson et al. Clearly the breakdown is a property of the dielectric material plus its electrode system. the abscissa is dimensionless thickness. It does not. 0. Its importance lies in giving some confirmation to the idea that collision ionization is a primary cause of breakdown in solids. Comparison with experimental results gave reasonable values for AV (a few tenths of an electron volt). The real importance of this work probably lies in the simple model that it provides for the electronic structure of an amorphous dielectric. A steady state theory to include the effects of space charge was given by O'Dwyer  who used disposable constants to fit the theory to the experimental results. and the parceneter is (5) Once again Eo is a field strength determined by crystal parameters. O Cooper and Smith The dashed Line represents a fit to the spacecharge-enhanced cathode emission theory.hence the concept of "intrinsic breakdown". its value probably goes no further than giving a means of estimating parameters in the collision ionization function by fitting theory to breakdown data. For example. of course. 2 indicate a change in breakdown strength of NaCl crystals by a factor of about 10 when the electrode separation is increased by a factor of 103. The line of best fit is shown on Fig.) The ordinate is dimensionlees voltage. J Vorob'ev et aZ. This result gave In this formula Eo is a field strength determined by Fig. but there does not seem to be really convincing evidence for Frolich amorphous breakdown in any substance at all.: Breakdown in solid dielectrics 485 excellent order of magnitude agreement (with no disposable constants) for observed breakdown strengths of alkali halides below about 50°C. 2. Frohlich  gave a formula for a critical field at whcih collision recombination no longer balances collision ionization w 5 _0 0o-3 o0-2 lo-. (From the data of Moon .. E-= E0 exp(AV/2kT) reciprocal dimensionless temperature. the combined results of various workers shown in Fig. To is the ambient _ N. Thickness dependence of breakdown strength was explained by Seitz  who used an order of magnitude argument to arrive at an avalanche breakdown theory based on 40 generations of collision ionization. temperature.0'Dwyer. The relevant dimensionless quantities correspond to voltage. Once again. A complete solution in dimensionless form was computed by Fock  and Moon  for the breakdown of a dielectric slab of constant thermal conductivity K and electrical conductivity given by a(T) = a0 exp(-q/kT) (2) The electrodes with separation D had their heat dissipating ability described by a surface thermal conductivity A. o. and thickness v=vo( 8oK 0) kT 0/ (3) Further experimental work began to erode the whole concept of intrinsic breakdown strength. and is the angular frequency of the longitudinal polarization waves. For temperatures above about 50°C the breakdown strength of alkali halides decreased with increasing temperature.
Calderwood. 2) A tree initiation stage in which concentrations of ions in the gaseous phase are formed at places of high field concentration and deposition of energy.. Roy. DiStefans and Shatzkes  point out that the model does not predict negative resistance for negligible levels of avalanche multiplication.       H. 4.. 78. 71.. and which have been observed experimentally in many instances. W. This concept has been further developed by Klein  who considers the transient problem and derives relations for the critical field and the time to breakdown. 160. Trans. L. Transport coefficients to be used in the computer model of the avalanche were assigned or computed from assigned parameters. A strong point of these models is that they account for many different processes (ionization. Smith. Engrs. A strong point of this model is its clear identification of various physical processes that are postulated to occur. Rev. Cooper and W. Phys. with the evolution being halted when the self-field due to the electrons and holes reached 50% of the applied field. Watson. J. (1931) Vol. (1961) B Vol. (1947) A Vol. Appl.. and L. Elec. A simple scaling law emerged from the computations showing that the process could be described by assignment of a single parameter. Phys. 50. Yet another school of thought advances the viewpoint that breakdown is not to be identified with an uncontrolled electron avalanche. H. Elec. its weakness. December 1982 RECENT WORK ON BREAKDOWN THEORY Recent work on breakdown theory has followed various paths.486 IEEE Transactions on Electrical Insulation Vol.  R. and collision ionization could be of primary importance. A. in a sense. 30. J. Solics. Am. and divides the breakdown process into four stages: 1) A formative stage in which energy is deposited in preferred sites in the dielectric. 1376. Computing the number of electrons in the streamer as a function of time (dimensionless) showed almost the same thing over a range of different parameter values. as a potential theory of breakdown. Sol. B. Murashko. 4181. (unpublished). J. Vorb'ev. The authors conclude that a single solution probably exists to the problem of the evolution of negative tip streamers over a large The strong point range of material parameter values. and the ionization energy as the fundamental dimsensional set. Fock. a strong point of the model. The current characteristic is determined by cathode emission alone up to the point where collision ionization is significant. C. Budenstein  argues strongly for this opinion. 3) A tree growth stage in which energy is supplied from the field to the gases which then further erode the solid. Elektrotech.. in its present form it gives no explanation of the large current transients and partial discharges that seem to be almost universal precursors to breakdown. P. Moon. 4) A return streamer which occurs when a tree extends from one electrode to the other. is that has not so far given a criterion for a critical applied field. H. The dipolar charge distribution of the products of collision ionization was then used to set up a macroscopic model to describe the subsequent evoltuion of the avalanche. Proc. 1441. A. A. 1008.  who compute the growth of an electron avalanche using a Monte Carlo technique. Inst. (1927) Vol. 521. Proc. Beers and J. Soc. Phys.. Phys. (1981) Vol. A. Frohlich. Voroblev. and considers two basic models. of this approach is the way in which it follows the temporal development of the postulated electron avalanche. O'Dwyer. The development of the avalanche was followed as a function of time both in the direction of the applied field and laterally. J. 230. Arch. and in the other this role is filled by drift to the electrodes (ID model). (1965) EI-1.   D. (1967) Vol. early concepts of purely electrical breakdowndown were simplistic but yielded results that were easily checked against gross features of experimental data. The theory of steady state space charge conduction in the presence of collision ionization has been investigated for various geometries by O'Dwyer  who finds a current controlled negative resistance characteristic for a wide range of material and electrode parameters. (1937) A Vol. An entirely different approach to the problem has been taken by Beers et al. 52. T. 734. A weakness is the large number of material parameters. 28. To summarize. Phys. however. and the number and nature of assumptions that would be needed to proceed with the computation. Klein includes the effect of trapping of the ionizing carrier. Sov. This is. in one of these models recombination is the maj'or reason for the removal of the products of ionization (IR model). and recombination): their wekaness lies in uncertainties associated with various assumptions made in obtaining solutions. (1949) Vol. 19. Proc. K. 76.. In all cases the breakdown strength is strongly affected by electron and hole traps. EI-17 No. Chem.6. (1963) Vol. Soc.. J. and J. Refinement of concepts designed to account for all the experimental details has led to increasingly complex theoretical models which make direct comparison with the data ever more difficult.. Kao. current through the highly conducting streamer forms the breakdown channel. 1137. trapping. IEEE Trans. H. each one looking at some particular aspect of the problem. St. the mean free path for acoustic phonon scattering. F. The problem was brought into dimensionless form by assigning the effective electron mass. Roy. there may be many mechanisms. Ins. H. REFERENCES   V. G. Frolich. 188. J. Soc. Wintle. B. . Heyes. O'Dwyer. Seitz. immediately thereafter negative resistance occurs.
IEEE Trams. J. H. (1982) Vol. L. O'Dwyer. DiStefano and M. on 20 October 1982 at the Symposium on Universal Features of Electric Breakdown in Gases. (1975) Vol. 12.. 225..0'Dwyer: Breakdown in solid dielectrics 487  J. J. This paper was presented at the 1982 Conference on Electrical Insulation and Dielectric Phenomena in Amherst. CEIDP. MA..  N. Beers. T. 264. 53.  P. EI-15. Annual. 37. J. (1981) 390. Manuscript was received 28 JuZy 1982. IEEE Trans. (1980).  B. Budenstein.. Appl. Vac. V. Rep. Ins. Elec. Shatkzes. . W. Klein. Ives. Ins. Elec.  T. Pine and S. Phys. Solids. Tech. Liquids. and at Interfaces. Sci. (1980) EI-15.
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