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Quantitative investigation of the MgO-layer erosion in a real ac plasma display panel (PDP) microcell operated at 180 V and 10 kHz was carried out in situ, and real-time using noninvasive and nondestructive microscopic transmission measurements. The main spatial features in the MgO-layer erosion were the formation of two trenches near the electrode edges, the redeposition of the eroded MgO in the midsection between the two trenches and the occurrence of maximum erosion rate at the position where the trench bottom formed. The temporal variation of both the normalized thickness and the erosion rate were dominated by the exponential terms with the identical time constant of 74.6 h for short discharge duration. After the prolonged discharge, the former and the later became constant and linearly decreasing as a function of time, respectively. The lower limit of the lifetime of this PDP cell, which we assume as the time for the total depletion of the electron-beam evaporated MgO layer at the trench bottom, was estimated to be ∼12 000 h from the quantified temporal variation of the normalized thickness. © 2003 American Vacuum Society.