Distortion-free measurement of electric field strength with a MEMS sensor


Small-scale and distortion-free measurement of electric fields is crucial for applications such as surveying atmospheric electrostatic fields, lightning research and safeguarding areas close to high-voltage power lines. A variety of measurement systems exist, the most common of which are field mills, which work by picking up the differential voltage of the measurement electrodes while periodically shielding them with a grounded electrode. However, all current approaches are bulky, suffer from a strong temperature dependency or severely distort the electric field, and thus require a well-defined surrounding and complex calibration procedures. Here we show that microelectromechanical system (MEMS) devices can be used to measure electric field strength without significant field distortion. The purely passive MEMS devices exploit the effect of electrostatic induction, which is used to generate internal forces that are converted into an optically tracked mechanical displacement of a spring-suspended seismic mass. The devices exhibit resolutions on the order of 100 V m−1 Hz−1/2 with a measurement range of up to tens of kilovolts per metre in the quasi-static regime 300 Hz). We also show that it should be possible to achieve resolutions of around 1 V m−1 Hz−1/2 by fine-tuning the sensor embodiment. These MEMS devices are compact and could be mass produced easily for wide application.

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Fig. 1: Illustration of the charge separation and electrostatic forces occurring on a conducting sphere in an external electric field.
Fig. 2: MEMS embodiment of the electric field transducer.
Fig. 3: Measurement set-up for characterization of the transducer.
Fig. 4: Response of a MEMS sensor (group Ch00) to input electric fields.


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This work was supported financially by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF, research grant P 28404-NBL), the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Province of Lower Austria. The authors thank G. Diendorfer for discussions and his support on acquiring the funding for this work.

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A.K., H.S. and W.H. carried out the design, modelling and measurements. J.S. and A.J. were responsible for manufacturing the device, while F.Ko., M.S. and F.Ke. supported the measurements and the design of the devices. R.B. supported modelling and was involved in acquiring funding for the work. All authors contributed to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Andreas Kainz.

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Kainz, A., Steiner, H., Schalko, J. et al. Distortion-free measurement of electric field strength with a MEMS sensor. Nat Electron 1, 68–73 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41928-017-0009-5

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