# Will strong electric field damage electronic components?

Electronic components like transistors, diodes etc have maximum voltage ratings which when exceeded damages the respective component. Is voltage sufficient to damage a component or there must be a sufficient current? I mean one may place these components in an external electric field (static field not dynamic) such that the voltage between two points exceeds their rated voltage capacity. However, there is no current supply as the component is in an electric field(in air), and not connected to a power source. Will the component be damaged?

Note that the electric field is strong enough to exceed components voltage rating but not high enough to cause dielectric breakdown of air or semiconductor material.

• The disablement of electronic devices is why some countries have developed electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. – Fred Sep 16 '18 at 9:14
• @Fred Thanks for your reply. However, my question is in context of static electric field not dynamic. I have made necessary correction in the post. – qazxsw Sep 17 '18 at 4:43

## 4 Answers

In theory if the component is in a circuit containing a loop then the wires of that loop could act as an antenna to receive the disturbance from an EMP and create an internal AC current without requiring the device with the circuit to be powered at the time.

• Thanks for your reply. However, my question is in context of static electric field not dynamic. I have made necessary correction in the post. – qazxsw Sep 17 '18 at 4:40

If a high voltage is applied directly and incorrectly to a pin then yes

If the field can induce a high enough voltage in components then yes they can be damaged.

The component data sheet will give information about relevant limits.

A constant strong electric field might have an adverse effect on elements that utilize magnetic field, especially moving - motors etc. But the electronics can work at pretty much any potential as long as it's a constant potential.

OTOH a field with a strong differential, or rapidly changing will fry your electronics quick. Yes, the voltage alone doesn't hurt, you need a current - but with sufficient voltage the current will happen all by itself easily. So, if half of the board happens to be on the negative side and the other on the positive side of the field, you can expect a malfunction; if it's allowed to discharge, expect damage. And if you rapidly induce a massive electromagnetic wave through e.g an EMP bomb, sparks will fly.

• could u plz explain-"So, if half of the board happens to be on the negative side and the other on the positive side of the field, you can expect a malfunction"? – qazxsw Sep 18 '18 at 12:08
• @qazxsw: Imagine a big air-capacitor: two large parallel sheets of metal separated by some 10cm of air. Apply very high voltage between them - not enough for a spark, but enough to create a strong electric field. If you first put an electronic board between them, parallel to them, then charged them, then switched the board on, it should work - despite massive electric field, the difference of potential across the (small) thickness of the board is minuscule. – SF. Sep 18 '18 at 12:13
• Now turn the board 90 degrees so it's perpendicular to the plates. One side gets a potential much different than the other. Voltages appear where there should be none. As the board is isolated (by air) there's no harmful current but the logic circuits go bonkers over the completely unexpected inputs. You have a soft malfunction. Now rotate it so that the corners get close to the sheets enough to close the air gap. You have a spark and current at massive voltage flows through the circuitry evaporating the nanometers wide paths in integrated circuits. You have a hardware damage. – SF. Sep 18 '18 at 12:16
• thanks for the great explanation. If the electric field is time-varying, it will be more lethal...right? – qazxsw Sep 19 '18 at 4:30
• @qazxsw: Yes - if it's fast enough. It's quite likely to induce current that may damage something. (that's why I said "put it in the capacitor, then charge, then switch board on". Slow change of the field won't hurt, but if you insert the board quickly, the field through it will rise quickly. – SF. Sep 19 '18 at 8:19

For many years I have been postulating that semiconductor devices can be damaged by electric field. Studies of the photomasks that are used to print semiconductor devices show extreme sensitivity to electric field induced damage, and the way electric fields behave when they pass through arrays of isolated conductors (as found in photomasks) is not easy to visualise - you need to conduct computer simulations to appreciate how the field will behave and how much the field is distorted by the structures. On the scale of junctions within semiconductor devices the potential difference induced between conductive lines by exposure to an electric field may be very small - less than a volt - but the field strength in the gap can be huge, and this field strength can be harmful to a dielectric film that is used to keep operational parts of the device electrically isolated from one another. This graph shows a computer simulation that reveals the induced potential difference and the electric field strength between two isolated conductors exposed to a constant field, at different separations. As the separation is reduced the induced potential difference falls away, but the field strength increases rapidly - it is highly non-linear. This is why I have been drawing attention to the risk from exposure to electric fields. The view of ESD consultants working in the semiconductor industry is generally that devices are not sensitive to electric field, but I believe this is a view based purely on their far greater sensitivity to ESD induced damage. In other words, it's not that devices are not sensitive to electric field, they are just much less sensitive to field than they are to ESD strike. One consultant who was interested to explore my view conducted an experiment to see if devices could be damaged by exposure to electric field alone, without an ESD event taking place, and he confirmed that they can. His paper can be found here: Smallwood, J., “Can Electrostatic Discharge Sensitive electronic devices be damaged by electrostatic fields?” J. Phys.: Conf. Ser. 1322 012015, 2019