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Ionisers In ESD Control: A Complete Guide

Air ionisation is increasingly being used in many industries and critical environments to neutralise or control static charges. In an Electrostatic Protected Area, there are often times where items such as masking tapes or product plastic housing cannot be grounded to Earth. While some of these items can be simply removed from the EPA or swapped for an ESD protective version, others may be necessary to use to complete operations. A core principle of ESD control is to neutralise “process-essential” insulators with the use of ESD ionisers.

In this article, we will cover the basics of an ioniser, the types of ionisers there are for ESD control and how they function. We will also provide you with our top-tips on choosing the right type of ioniser for your application.

What is an ioniser?

In industries where printed circuit boards, SMDs or other electronics assembly equipment are manufactured, it is critical to remove electrostatic discharge (ESD) and particle contamination to prevent irreversible damage to static sensitive components. One method to protect your production line process is by utilising ionisers.

Ionisers are specialised devices that help to remove static charge on objects and surfaces by passing an electrical charge to molecules in the air. The primary function of an ioniser is to neutralise electrostatic charges on “process-essential” insulators and isolated (non-grounded) conductors.

What is a “process-essential” insulator?

An insulator is classed as a non-conductor and therefore cannot be grounded. Insulators can usually be controlled by either replacing the insulative items with an ESD protective version or by removing them from the EPA. When either of these options are not possible, the insulator is known as “process-essential”.

ESD workstations in an Electrostatic Protected Area often have “process-essential” insulators (i.e. product plastic housing or PC board substrate) or isolated conductors (i.e. conductive traces or printed circuit board components not in contact with ESD worksurface) that cannot be removed or replaced. “Process-essential” insulators are necessary to build or assemble the finished product. When grounding of these is not possible, choosing a method to neutralise electrostatic charge is necessary. This can be achieved with ionisation.

Functions of an ioniser in ESD control

1. Neutralise electrostatic charges on process-essential insulators

2. Minimise electrostatic charges on isolated conductors

3. Eliminate particulate contamination

How does an ioniser work?

An ioniser works by creating a vast number of positively and negatively charged ions. These ions are then sent out into the atmosphere. Fans help these charged ions flow over the work area. When the ions make contact with a charged surface, the surface attracts ions of the opposite polarity. As a result, the built-up electrostatic charges on the equipment, products, or surfaces in your immediate workspace is neutralised, thereby reducing their potential to cause ESD damage to static sensitive components.

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How does airflow affect ionisation?

Airflow is often needed to help some ionisers operator properly. When using ionisers that require airflow, it is important to understand that these ionisers will be dependant on available airflow or include fans in their design. If the ionisers include fans in their design, they must be weighed for their compatibility with the work area.

Ioniser applications

Ionisers can be used in various types of environments where static charge and particle contamination must be controlled. Several types of applications where ionisers are commonly used include the following:

  • PCB and Electronic Assembly
  • Flat Panel Display Manufacturing
  • Life Science Manufacturing
  • Back-end Semiconductor Processing
  • Front-end Semiconductor Manufacturing

Types of ionisers for ESD control

Bench top ionisers

Bench top ionisers are commonly used due to their compact build and ability to be easily moved from one workbench to another. This can help save costs for small EPAs with a few operators and shared workload if the ioniser is moved between each bench. They are simple to use, and routine maintenance can be performed with ease.

Their smaller size and lighter weight make the bench top ioniser a more convenient choice for workstation ionisation. While they generally require only little production space, some types of bench top ionisers can be suspended above the bench using a flexible mounting arm, wall-mounted or placed on a shelf.

With a bench top ioniser, it is imperative that items on the workbench must not obstruct the flow of ionised air.

Advantages:

  • + Lightweight
  • + Compact
  • + Portable
  • + Easy to maintain

Disadvantages:

  • – Potential obstruction of airflow

 

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Overhead ionisers

When work station space is limited, overhead ionisers are a good option to use. Overhead ionisers were established to help solve the problem of items on a bench blocking the flow of ionised air. With an overhead ioniser, downward airflow is more consistent over the entire bench. Compared to other types of ionisers, overhead ionisers are quiet and high-performing.

Advantages:

  • + Large and consistent air flow coverage
  • + Quiet
  • + Items unlikely to block airflow
  • + Does not take up valuable workspace
  • + High-performance

Disadvantages:

  • – Heavy compared to other types of ionisers

 

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Precision air ionisers

There are various types of precision air ionisers for ESD control. Two of the most common types include air ioniser guns and ionising air snakes. Precision air ionisers use compressed air to neutralise static charges in localised areas. They are a good option for removing contamination such as dust or debris while simultaneously eliminating static attraction particles on a static sensitive device. ESD guns and other types of forced air ionisers are typically used in the cleanroom industry where particle contamination is strictly controlled. Whereas an air ioniser gun requires hand-held operation, an ionising air snake is a great choice to use when hands-free operation in a confined space is required.

Advantages:

  • + “Point-and-shoot” operation
  • + Strong air blast
  • + Good for removing dust and debris

Disadvantages:

  • – Use up valuable workstation space
  • – Only good for neutralising static charges in localised areas

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Which type of ioniser do I use in my application?

While there is no best type of ioniser technology for all applications, there are several key factors to keep in mind when determining the most appropriate type of ioniser to use.

  1. Type of operation: Consider what type of work / processes your operators are doing. If the workspace is limited, an overhead ioniser can be a more beneficial option. For hands-free operations, you may find that an ionising air snake is the right choice.
  2. Available budget: Setting your budget can help you select the most appropriate type of ioniser for you and your company. Depending on your budget, you may find that some features may need to be compromised for others.
  3. Features required: It is important to choose an ioniser that meets your requirements. Consider whether your ioniser needs to be made from stainless steel or whether it needs to have a built-in auto-balance feature. Make a list of all the important features you require.
  4. Class cleanroom: If you work in a cleanroom environment, consider what class cleanroom you have. This could determine which type of ioniser you need.
  5. Environmental considerations: The type of working environment can influence what type of ioniser you need. For example, does the environment use turbulent, no airflow or laminar?
  6. Charge neutralisation: Consider how effective you need the ioniser to be at minimising static charge. An overhead ioniser has a high-performance at eliminating static charge.

For more advice on selecting the right type of ioniser, contact Bondline

Our team will provide you with their expert advice on choosing the best type of ioniser for your application. Get in touch with us today on +44 (0)1793 511000 to discuss your budget and requirements. We can also offer an ESD Assessment of your area to help determine what types of ESD control equipment is required for your ESD Control Plan. Whether you need an esd mat or contamination control tacky mats, we can help!

Bondline Electronics Ltd are a trusted supplier of ESD control products since 1986, see their full range of static control consumables and ionisers on www.bondline.co.uk

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Chloé Warlow
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