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What is meant by a 'harsh environment' in electronics or photonics?

 

A harsh environment can generally be described as a setting in which survival is difficult or impossible. The extreme cold of the Russian Siberia, -70°C, or the extreme heat of the Sahara Desert, 57°C, may be considered to be harsh environments for humans. A harsh environment could also be understood as an environment for which an entity was not intended.

Given the vast number of electronic and photonic materials available for use, an environment that may be harsh for one application will perhaps be ordinary for another. However, in a broad sense, most of the materials used in electronics and photonics do have many commonalities. These similarities help to define a range of factors that may be used to characterise harsh environments for the industry as a whole. These factors include temperature, chemical, radiative, and mechanical stresses.

Temperature

Operating temperatures outside the range -40°C to 125°C are generally considered to be harsh. See 'What are high temperature electronics?'for more on high temperatures. Low temperature environments considered to be harsh are those used in superconducting applications for NbTi or MgB2. These applications use liquid He (-269°C) and liquid N (-196°C) for operation.

Other contributors to hostile environments for electronics include:

Chemical

  • saltwater (ocean-going vessels and aircraft)
  • moisture
  • fuel (automotive and aerospace)
  • noxious gases (automotive, aerospace, and petrochemical)

Radiative stresses

  • cosmic rays
  • magnetic influences from electromagnetism

Mechanical stresses

  • vibration
  • shock
  • CTE mismatches
  • pressure

Each of the above stresses contributes to an application's environment. A novel or new environment that pushes the capabilities of the materials to their limits can be considered a harsh environment.

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