Breakdown voltage

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High voltage breakdown of an insulator string Lfa.JPG
High voltage breakdown of an insulator string

The breakdown voltage of an insulator is the minimum voltage that causes a portion of an insulator to become electrically conductive.


For diodes, the breakdown voltage is the minimum reverse voltage that makes the diode conduct appreciably in reverse. Some devices (such as TRIACs) also have a forward breakdown voltage.

Diode electronic component

A diode is a two-terminal electronic component that conducts current primarily in one direction ; it has low resistance in one direction, and high resistance in the other. A diode vacuum tube or thermionic diode is a vacuum tube with two electrodes, a heated cathode and a plate, in which electrons can flow in only one direction, from cathode to plate. A semiconductor diode, the most common type today, is a crystalline piece of semiconductor material with a p–n junction connected to two electrical terminals. Semiconductor diodes were the first semiconductor electronic devices. The discovery of asymmetric electrical conduction across the contact between a crystalline mineral and a metal was made by German physicist Ferdinand Braun in 1874. Today, most diodes are made of silicon, but other materials such as gallium arsenide and germanium are used.

TRIAC generic trademark for a three-terminal thyristor that can conducts current in either direction when triggered

TRIAC, from triode for alternating current, is a generic trademark for a three terminal electronic component that conducts current in either direction when triggered. Its formal name is bidirectional triode thyristor or bilateral triode thyristor. A thyristor is analogous to a relay in that a small voltage induced current can control a much larger voltage and current. The illustration on the right shows the circuit symbol for a TRIAC where A1 is Anode 1, A2 is Anode 2, and G is Gate. Anode 1 and Anode 2 are normally termed Main Terminal 1 (MT1) and Main Terminal 2 (MT2) respectively.


Breakdown voltage is a characteristic of an insulator that defines the maximum voltage difference that can be applied across the material before the insulator conducts. In solid insulating materials, this usually[ citation needed ] creates a weakened path within the material by creating permanent molecular or physical changes by the sudden current. Within rarefied gases found in certain types of lamps, breakdown voltage is also sometimes called the striking voltage. [1]

Electric current flow of electric charge

An electric current is a flow of electric charge. In electric circuits this charge is often carried by electrons moving through a wire. It can also be carried by ions in an electrolyte, or by both ions and electrons such as in an ionized gas (plasma).

The breakdown voltage of a material is not a definite value because it is a form of failure and there is a statistical probability whether the material will fail at a given voltage. When a value is given it is usually the mean breakdown voltage of a large sample. Another term is also withstand voltage, where the probability of failure at a given voltage is so low it is considered, when designing insulation, that the material will not fail at this voltage.

Dielectric withstand test

A dielectric withstand test or high potential or hipot test is an electrical test performed on a component or product to determine the effectiveness of its insulation. The test may be between mutually insulated sections of a part or energized parts and electrical ground. The test is a means to qualify a device's ability to operate safely during rated electrical conditions. If the current through a device under test is less than a specified limit at the required test potential and time duration, the device meets the dielectric withstand requirement. A dielectric withstand test may be done as a factory test on new equipment, or may be done on apparatus already in service as a routine maintenance test.

Two different breakdown voltage measurements of a material are the AC and impulse breakdown voltages. The AC voltage is the line frequency of the mains. The impulse breakdown voltage is simulating lightning strikes, and usually uses a 1.2 microsecond rise for the wave to reach 90% amplitude, then drops back down to 50% amplitude after 50 microseconds. [2]

Utility frequency

The utility frequency, (power) line frequency or mains frequency is the nominal frequency of the oscillations of alternating current (AC) in an electric power grid transmitted from a power station to the end-user. In large parts of the world this is 50 Hz, although in the Americas and parts of Asia it is typically 60 Hz. Current usage by country or region is given in the list of mains power around the world.

Two technical standards governing performing these tests are ASTM D1816 and ASTM D3300 published by ASTM. [3]

Gases and vacuum

In standard conditions at atmospheric pressure, air serves as an excellent insulator, requiring the application of a significant voltage of 3.0 kV/mm before breaking down (e.g., lightning, or sparking across plates of a capacitor, or the electrodes of a spark plug). In partial vacuum, this breakdown potential may decrease to an extent that two uninsulated surfaces with different potentials might induce the electrical breakdown of the surrounding gas. This may damage an apparatus, as breakdown is analogous to a short circuit.

In a gas, the breakdown voltage can be determined by Paschen's law.

The breakdown voltage in a partial vacuum is represented as [4] [5] [6]

where is the breakdown potential in volts DC, and are constants that depend on the surrounding gas, represents the pressure of the surrounding gas, represents the distance in centimetres between the electrodes,[ clarification needed ] and represents the Secondary Electron Emission Coefficient.

A detailed derivation and some background information is given in the article about Paschen's law.

Diodes and other semiconductors

Diode I-V diagram Diode-IV-Curve.svg
Diode I-V diagram

Breakdown voltage is a parameter of a diode that defines the largest reverse voltage that can be applied without causing an exponential increase in the leakage current in the diode. Exceeding the breakdown voltage of a diode, per se, is not destructive; although, exceeding its current capacity will be. In fact, Zener diodes are essentially just heavily doped normal diodes that exploit the breakdown voltage of a diode to provide regulation of voltage levels.

Rectifier diodes (semiconductor or tube/valve) may have several voltage ratings, such as the peak inverse voltage (PIV) across the diode, and the maximum RMS input voltage to the rectifier circuit (which will be much less).

Many small-signal transistors need to have any breakdown currents limited to much lower values to avoid excessive heating. To avoid damage to the device, and to limit the effects excessive leakage current may have on the surrounding circuit, the following bipolar transistor maximum ratings are often specified:

VCEO (sometimes written BVCEO or V(BR)CEO
The maximum voltage between collector and emitter that can be safely applied (and with no more than some specified leakage current, often) when no circuit at the base of the transistor is there to remove collector-base leakage. Typical values: 20 volts to as high as 700 volts; very early Germanium point-contact transistors such as the OC10 had values around 5 volts or less.
The maximum collector-to-base voltage, with emitter open-circuit. Typical values 25 to 1200 volts.
The maximum voltage rating between collector and emitter with some specified resistance (or less) between base and emitter. A more realistic rating for real-world circuits than the open-base or open-emitter scenarios above.
The maximum reverse voltage on the base with respect to the emitter.
Collector to emitter rating when base is shorted to emitter; equivalent to VCER when R = 0;

Field-effect transistors have similar maximum ratings, the most important one for junction FETs is the gate-drain rating.

Some devices may also have a maximum rate of change of voltage specified.

Electrical apparatus

Power transformers, circuit breakers, switchgear and other electrical apparatus connected to overhead transmission lines are exposed to transient lightning surge voltages induced on the power circuit. Electrical apparatus will have a basic lightning impulse level (BIL) specified. This is the crest value of an impulse waveform with a standardized wave shape, intended to simulate the electrical stress of a lightning surge or a surge induced by circuit switching. The BIL is coordinated with the|typical operating voltage of the apparatus. For high-voltage transmission lines, the impulse level is related to the clearance to ground of energized components.As an example, a transmission line rated 138 kV would be designed for a BIL of 650 kV. A higher BIL may be specified than the minimum, where the exposure to lightning is severe. [7]

See also

Related Research Articles


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Rectifier AC-DC conversion device; electrical device that converts alternating current (AC), which periodically reverses direction, to direct current (DC), which flows in only one direction

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Zener diode diode that allows current to flow in the reverse direction

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Darlington transistor compound structure consisting of two bipolar transistors

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In electronics, a linear regulator is a system used to maintain a steady voltage. The resistance of the regulator varies in accordance with the load resulting in a constant output voltage. The regulating device is made to act like a variable resistor, continuously adjusting a voltage divider network to maintain a constant output voltage and continually dissipating the difference between the input and regulated voltages as waste heat. By contrast, a switching regulator uses an active device that switches on and off to maintain an average value of output. Because the regulated voltage of a linear regulator must always be lower than input voltage, efficiency is limited and the input voltage must be high enough to always allow the active device to drop some voltage.

In electronics, an avalanche diode is a diode that is designed to experience avalanche breakdown at a specified reverse bias voltage. The junction of an avalanche diode is designed to prevent current concentration and resulting hot spots, so that the diode is undamaged by the breakdown. The avalanche breakdown is due to minority carriers accelerated enough to create ionization in the crystal lattice, producing more carriers which in turn create more ionization. Because the avalanche breakdown is uniform across the whole junction, the breakdown voltage is nearly constant with changing current when compared to a non-avalanche diode.

Differential amplifier

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Schmitt trigger

In electronics, a Schmitt trigger is a comparator circuit with hysteresis implemented by applying positive feedback to the noninverting input of a comparator or differential amplifier. It is an active circuit which converts an analog input signal to a digital output signal. The circuit is named a "trigger" because the output retains its value until the input changes sufficiently to trigger a change. In the non-inverting configuration, when the input is higher than a chosen threshold, the output is high. When the input is below a different (lower) chosen threshold the output is low, and when the input is between the two levels the output retains its value. This dual threshold action is called hysteresis and implies that the Schmitt trigger possesses memory and can act as a bistable multivibrator. There is a close relation between the two kinds of circuits: a Schmitt trigger can be converted into a latch and a latch can be converted into a Schmitt trigger.

Common collector

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Paschens law

Paschen's law is an equation that gives the breakdown voltage, that is, the voltage necessary to start a discharge or electric arc, between two electrodes in a gas as a function of pressure and gap length. It is named after Friedrich Paschen who discovered it empirically in 1889.

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