Tribology Issues in Electrical Contacts

M.D. Bryant Mechanical Engineering The University of Texas at Austin Austin, Texas 78712-1063

Dedicated to the late Dr. Ralph Ashley Burton, who introduced me to Electrical Contacts.

• Introduction Define electrical contacts Review: Contact principles Review: Electrical concepts • Electrical contact physics • Selected problem areas Connectors Sliding contacts/brushes Switches and relays

Electrical Contacts Review
• Definition: Ragnar Holm, Electric Contacts, Theory and Application, 4th edition, Springer-Verlag, New York, 1981. electrical contact ….. a releasable junction between two conductors which is apt to carry electric current. • Purpose: Transfer charge across a mechanical interface between conductors. Electric contacts permit frequent and convenient connection and disconnection of circuits. • Common Applications Switches & Relays Connectors & Plugs Sliding contacts: brushes • Background = All areas of classical physics: Tribology + Electrical Engineering + Chemistry + Materials + Mechanics + Quantum effects

Electrical Contact Make Press bodies together ⇒ Contact pressures & area Voltage difference ⇒ current Charge carriers “jump” interfacial gap Contact impedance (resistance) depends on Real contact area materials films lines of current conductor 1 conductor 2 .

Electrical Contact Requirements • • Electrical Conductive Negligible effect on circuit: small impedance• Stable: no impedance fluctuations • Mechanical Contact stays together Compact Chemically & thermally stable Cost effective lines of current conductor 1 conductor 2 .

y2 P p(x.νi2 ki = πE i •α= 1 3 { 9π2P2(k1+k2)2(R1+R2) 16R1R2 } .y) Zf (x. y) = po a2 .1 Contact Principles HERTZIAN THEORY • p(x.x2 . y) 2a P 3P po = 2π a2 3πP(k1+k2)R1R2 • a= 4(R1+R2) x { } 1 3 1.

2 PLASTIC CONTACT THEORY • Indentation (Meyer) hardness P P p δA P P Load P > elastic limit ⇒ plastic deformations Bodies in contact • • Contact pressures p(x. given H and P . y) approximately uniform Hardness pressure (indentation hardness) P Η ≡ p ≈ δA H ≈ 3 x Yield stress • Use: estimate contact area.

α = α1+α2 > Elastic (Hertzian) contact model 1 9π2P2(k1+k2)2(R1+R2) 3 16R1R2 { } Plastic contact model { 9π2Pe2(k1+k2)2(R1+R2) 16R1R2 } 1 3 • Similar formulations.y) α2 P 2a P • Spheres • Increasing normal load P 0 ≤ P < Pe . tangential loads & deformations .3 OVERALL CONTACT MODEL P α1 P p(x. α = α1+α2 = P ≥ Pe .

jumps gap if sufficient kinetic energy V < φgap suggests no current Tunnel effect: distribution of energies over population of charge carriers.4 Electrical Concepts Electric field: force per charge [N C–1 = V m-1] Voltage: energy per charge [volt V = J C-1] Current: charges in motion [ampere A = C s-1] • requires charge [coulomb C] carriers Electrons: eHoles: p+ • Conduction mechanisms Free electrons e.in metals Barrier gap/work function potential φgap e. some have enough kinetic to jump kinetic energy distribution energy per charge φgap V distance electrode 1 gap electrode 2 Φ gap kinetic energy: eV .

5 Current density: [A m-2] Impedance: Z = V/I. resistance to current flow Z=R+jX Resistance: R = ρ l/A [ohm Ω = V A-1] Resistivity: ρ [Ω–m] Area: A [m2] Length: l [m] • Reactance: X from Inductance L [henry H = Ω s] ZL = jω L Capacitance C [farad F = C V-1 = Ω-1 s] ZC = 1/jω C .

a: contact radius • Neglects volume r < a • Actual Constriction Resistance: Rc = ρ/2a • Contact radius a via mechanical contact .6 Constriction Resistance r 2a r + dr • Lines of current constrict near contact • Water draining from bathtub: constriction impedes flow • Generates resistance R = ∫ ρ dr/A(r) = ∫ ρ/(2 π r2 ) dr ≈ ρ/2π (1/a – 1/r∞ ) ρ: bulk resistivity of body.

7 Surface Films body 1 film body 2 • Thin films: nm to µm • Thickness dependent resistivity: ρf = ρf(s) • Film formed via contaminant diffusion & corrosion • Mechanical Effects of film negligible • Film Resistance Rf = ∫ ρf/A ds • Tunnel effect can dominate ρf & Rf .

8 Continental Analogy of Contact • Rough surfaces: earth & electrical contacts North America Rocky Mountains • Invert South America. discrete contact areas at highest peaks . place atop North America Appalachian Mountains South America Andes Mountains Brazil Highlands • Contact: highest peaks against highest peaks Andes/Appalachia Highlands/Rockies • Small.

discrete contact areas (a-spots) • ⇒ parallel circuits & micro-constrictions • “Pores” in contact allows easy contaminant diffusion global constriction contact area with micro-contacts rough surfaces a-spot .14 • Analogous to bodies in contact Rough surfaces Small.

15 Contact Impedance • Zc = Rc1 + jωLc1 + 1/( Σ Rm–1 ) + 1/ ( 1/Rf + jωC) + Rc2 + jωLc2 + 1/( Σ Rm–1 ) ≈ Rc = Rc1 + 1/( Σ Rm–1 ) + Rf + Rc2 + 1/( Σ Rm–1 ) lines of current global Rc constriction rough contact microconstrictions Rf Cf surface film effects • Inductance & capacitance effects small @ low frequency ω .

. Applied voltage: 2 V.8 0.2 0.16 Joule Heating • Contact resistance dissipates power: P = i2 Rc Heat sources • Field equations 1 Electrical: ∇ • J = ∇ • [ρ (T) ∇ V] = 0 (Laplace) e ∂T Thermal: ∇ • [k(T) ∇ Τ]+ q = ρCp(T) ∂t (Fourier) 1 q = qe = J • E = ρ e ∇ V • ∇ V 2 2.0 2 1750 1.4 0 0 1 x/a 2 0 0 1 x/a 2 1500 1000 1 2000 2000 1500 Equipotential contours and isotherms for electrical heating of carbon graphite with a cold contact boundary with a = 1 mm.6 z/a 1 z/a 1.

17 Polarization Effects DC voltage Bodies become anode and cathode Affects Chemistry Material behavior Arcing Examples Cathode brush wear > anode brush wear Graphite “sticks” to cathode Selective film formation on anode/cathode Affects contact resistance Anode/cathode arc erosion different .

design.com) .18 Switches & Relays Function. & purpose: frequent and rapid opening & closing of circuits. Often contains two metallic contactor parts.eaton. Switches / Relays / Reed Switches Pictures: Eaton website (www.

19 Arcing • Existing contact with current flow • Contact break interrupts circuit • Circuit inductance L opposes current change via induced voltage VL = L di/dt • Analogy: mass induces inertial force FI = m dv/dt • Charge carriers needed for current to jump gap • Air molecules ionize under voltage VL = VL(t) • Plasma formed: fourth state of matter • Arc = Current through ionized “column” closed contact open circuit: inductances induce air ions arc current flows via ions from air .

cathode Segregation & recrystallization Surface roughening 20 Photo: C. Leung & A. 39th IEEE Holm Conference.” Proc. Lee. 1993. welds & erodes electrodes Material transfer: anode . H.• Destructive: melts. 61-67 . pp. “Silver Tin Oxide Contact Erosion in Automotive Relays.

79-88. “Polarity Effect of Unsymmetrical Material Combination on the Arc Erosion and Contact Resistance Behaviour. Sawa. stationery on anode _ . 40th IEEE Holm Conference. relays. 1994. pp.21 Elevated & sporadic contact resistance Chart: Z. etc. Chen & K. plugs. • Always present in switches. • Often: arc travels along cathode.” Proc.

22 Research Issues/Design Problems • • • • Arc suppression Guide arc path Control contact bounce: repeated arcing Materials selection: powdered Cu-Cr Ni-CdO Ag-CdO Ag-SnO2 Ag-SnO2In2O3 Ag-MeO .

& purpose: permanent but quick connections/disconnects 5-40 year stable life Connector classes power connectors: power lines & junction boxes automotive electronic connectors: low power & compact Telephones electronics computers . design.23 Connectors • Function.

wedge connectors.T. J Schindler. 1-9. 1995.24 Power connectors: Aluminium • • • • • Lightweight Economic Conductive Form passivating films Problem: stress relaxation @ higher temperatures loss of contact area ⇒ higher Rc risk: fires Examples: wire nuts. 41st IEEE Holm Conference. Timsit. clamps Photo: J. “Mechanical and Electrical Contact Properties of Wedge Connectors.S. . pp.” Proc. Axon & R. R.

25 Electronic Connectors • Low power: contamination problems dust pollutants corrosive agents ⇒ fretting corrosion • IBM.com) .molex. late 1980s: connector problems cause 50% of all computer failures Pictures: Molex website (www.

computer failure • Fluctuations ⇒ “noise” to signals .26 Fretting Corrosion 100 10 Contact resistance (mΩ) 1 Surface films broken Stable Increase with fluctuations Drastic Increase Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 100 102 104 106 fretting time (cycles) • Elevated & fluctuating contact resistance • Elevated resistance: digital high ⇒ low.

resistance changes .27 Fretting Mechanism Aex p osed(m ) hm≈ 1 to 100 nm virgin asperities mth cycle: motions expose a-spots corrosive layers form • Micro-motions @ contact Stray vibrations Thermal expansions via temperature variation • Normal & tangential motions • Surfaces exposed: corrode • Surface wear: corrosion & metal • Buildup of fretting debris • Surfaces separated.

28 • Connector Insertion Force: Springs ⇒ relaxation • Healing mechanisms: breaking/penetrating films • Contact force: fractures • Wipe: fractures & displaces • Fritting: Joule heat from small filaments through film softens/melts metal. • Lubricants: reduces wear & seals off corrosive agents • Platings: Corrosion ion migration barriers • Au. Pt. Ni. plastic deformations brings electrodes closer & breaks film. Cu pores plating Connector Issues base metal s • Micro-connectors • Accelerated testing & aging: Mixed gases & vibrations simulate Batelle & IBM tests .

& purpose: Transfer charge (collect current) across moving interface.reliance.com) • Brushes with commutator bars connect across interface .29 Sliding Electrical Contacts Function. design. • Brushes DC & AC motors Slip rings Picture: Reliance website( www.

com) Operation • Carbon graphite electrically conductive • Sliding: graphite film deposits on metal • Humidity ⇒ water layer on graphite • Self lubricating Problems • Excessive Wear Hot-spotting/thermal mounding Brush dusting/low humidity lubrication Carbon graphite: water lubrication mechanism • Arcing across commutator bars .morganite.30 Carbon Brushes Carbon Brush Commutator Pictures: Morganite website (www.

@ higher sliding speeds friction & electrical heats @ contact spots spots expand & grow some spots separate loads transferred to still-connected spots .31 Hot-Spotting/Thermal Mounding slider countersurface • contact between rough surfaces ⇒ discrete spots (islands) of contact between surfaces slider expanded disconnecte d expanded countersurface • sliding commences.

break off • large wear particles ⇒ extreme wear .32 slider expanded disconnecte d expanded disconnecte d countersurface • loads transferred to still-connected spots • more intense conditions • process continues until slider runs on few spots • spots fragile.

copper other materials? .33 Research Issues • Attain very high current densities (> MA/cm2 ) Low wear Low friction Reasonable temperatures • Possible Geometries Solid brushes Fiber brushes • Liquid metals No contact resistance Conductive lubricant Poisonous: no leakage! NaK Eutectics • Materials selection: conductive & low friction metal graphites: silver.

International Conference on Electric Contacts. Electric Contacts Handbook. annually. Springer-Verlag. IEEE Transactions on Components. Berlin. & Manufacturing Technology . 1954-present. 3rd ed. Hybrids. Proceedings of the (IEEE) Holm Conference on Electric Contacts.34 References Ragnar Holm. 1958.. 1960-present. every other year.