Due to its low insertion loss, high isolation, high linearity, wide bandwidth, and near-zero dc power consumption, radio frequency micro-electromechanical (RF-MEMS) switches have been an emerging technology with significant potential in many high frequency circuits and systems, especially those requiring reconfiguration. Compared to other high frequency switching technologies, metal contact RF-MEMS switches have the highest figure of merit (FoM, defined as 1/RonCoff) because of its ultimately low contact resistance and off-state capacitance. In addition, metal contact RF-MEMS switches have extremely large bandwidth that can extend from dc to beyond 100 GHz.
However, the reliability issues associated with RF-MEMS contact switches have been a major barrier for the wider adoption of the technology. Significant efforts have been devoted to improving the lifetime (primarily in terms of cycling time) of RF-MEMS contact switches. For example, the Radant MEMS switch can be cycled up to 100 billion times under cold-switching conditions. Under hot-switching conditions, however, the reliability of these switches degrades quickly with a sharp increase in contact resistance and insertion loss after a few tens of thousands of cycles. For applications where hot switching is needed, improving the reliability of RF-MEMS switches has been a significant challenge.
Our group has recently demonstrated an RF-MEMS switch design that can significantly extend the hot-switching life-time of RF-MEMS contact switches. The design concept is shown in the figure above. To prevent the contact degradation during in hot-switching events, a pair of series protection contacts are added in parallel with the "real" contacts. When the switch closes, the protection contacts close first and creates a low-voltage, near cold-switching condition for the "real" contacts. Although protection switches have been proposed in the past, this work combines the protection and "real" contact actuation into a single mechanical structure, and demonstrated unequivocally the significant improvement in hot-switching life-time. For unpackaged devices using Au-Au as the "real" contact material and Pt-Au as the protection contact material, we have demonstrated 150-million actuation cycles at 1-W hot-switching power and 50-million at 2 W. This is much better than anything we have seen!
This design concept can in fact be extended to a few more switch design variations which we are currently investigating. We have also been working on improving the contact materials and packaging for further switch life-time enhancement.