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This paper reports on a comparison of gold and gold-nickel alloys as contact materials for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) switches. Pure gold is commonly used as the contact material in low-force metal-contact MEMS switches. The top two failure mechanisms of these switches are wear and stiction, which may be related to the material softness and the relatively high surface adhesion, respectively. Alloying gold with another metal introduces new processing options to strengthen the material against wear and reduce surface adhesion. In this paper, the properties of Au-Ni alloys were investigated as the lower contact electrode was controlled by adjusting the nickel content and thermal processing conditions. A unique and efficient switching degradation test was conducted on the alloy samples, using pure gold upper microcontacts. Solid-solution Au-Ni samples showed reduced wear rate but increased contact resistance, while two-phase Au-Ni (20 at.% Ni) showed a substantial improvement of switching reliability with only a small increase of contact resistance. Discussion of the effects of phase separation, surface topography, hardness, and electrical resistivity on contact resistance and switch degradation is also included.
Date of Publication: April 2009