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Gas breakdown is studied in an atmospheric pressure rf capacitive plasma source developed for materials applications. At a rf frequency of 13.56 MHz, breakdown voltage is largely a function of the product of the pressure and the discharge gap spacing, approximating the Paschen curve. However, breakdown voltage varies substantially with rf frequency due to a change in the electron loss mechanism. A large increase in breakdown voltage is observed when argon, oxygen, or nitrogen is added to helium despite their lower ionization potential. Discussion is given for optimal breakdown conditions at atmospheric pressure. © 2001 American Institute of Physics.