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Fusing Current

When Traces Melt Without a Trace

Douglas Brooks

Many people have contacted me regarding my column Now the melting point of copper is about 1083 C, result-
“Trace Currents and Temperatures: How Hard Can We ing in a DT from room temperature of about 1063 C.
Drive ‘Em?” in the May, 1998, issue. In that column I talked Plugging this value for DT into the equation and converting A
about the possibilities and the problems associated with to square inches leads to
developing a set of equations for the current/temperature I = 12,706*A Eq. 3
curves we all have occasion to reference. These two results (Equations 2 and 3) are remarkably
But many of you posed a different question. It typically close considering how different is their source and approach!
went something like this: “I need the trace to carry 5 Amps
for only about .5 seconds before…“ something catastrophic Onderdonk’s Investigation:
happens. “Then I don’t care if the trace melts or not. What I. M. Onderdonk developed a fairly complicated equation
size trace do I need?” that relates current and the time it takes for a wire to melt
My first reaction was that this is a fuse question, some- (Note 3). Using the melting point of copper for Tm and
thing I’ve never seen discussed. When enough of you asked converting area to square mils, his equation reduces to:
me about it I began digging for information. What I found I = .188*A/t
Eq. 4
was there isn’t much to be found! But thanks to some In this equation, I is the amount of current (Amps) that
direction from a few experts in the field (Note 1) I discovered can be applied to a trace of cross sectional area A square mils
that there is some very interesting theory to draw from.
for t seconds before the trace melts. Figure 1 graphs this
CAUTION: The information that follows is based on relationship.
theory and, to my knowledge, has never been tested on
printed circuit boards. Designs based on this theoretical
discussion should be significantly derated and/or tested be-
fore being committed to production.

Preece’s Investigation: Fusing Current Vs Area

W. H. Preece investigated the fusing (melting) current of 120
a wire. He developed Equation 1 for fusing current (Note 2): T=.5
I = a*d
Eq. 1 100
where I is the fusing current, d is the diameter of the
Current, Amps

80 T=1
wire in inches, and a is a constant that depends on the
material. He determined that a = 10,244 for copper.
A little algebra transforms this equation to: T=2
I = 12,277*A Eq. 2 40
where I = fusing current in Amps and A = the cross
sectional area of the wire in square inches. 20

Validation: 0
50 100 150 200 250 300 350 400
In my previous article I started with the relationship Area, Sq. Mils
B1 B2
I = k*DT *A
where I = Current in Amps, DT = change in temperature
in C., and A = cross sectional area in square mils. Figure 1.
Although I demonstrated that results could be improved Relationship between fusing current, cross-
if Area were broken into its component parts of width and sectional area and time for PCB traces, based on
thickness, the data still fit this model well and produced an Onderdonl’s equation.
empirical “best fit” equation:
.45 .69
I = .04*DT A

This article appeared in Printed Circuit Design, a Miller Freeman publication, December, 1998
 1998 Miller Freeman, Inc.  1998 UltraCAD Design, Inc.
Example: Area, Sq. Mils Time, Secs
Assume a 1 oz. (1.35 mil thick) copper trace must carry 10 0.7
20 Amps for 5 seconds. How wide must it be? Equation 4 20 1.0
leads to 176 mils in width. (Remember, there is NO safety 50 1.6
margin in this calculation!) 100 2.3
200 3.3
Discussion: 500 5.2
Trace current/temperature studies we are familiar with 1000 7.4
have tried to discover the equilibrium temperature a trace
will reach when a current is applied. Equilibrium occurs Table 1
when the heating of the trace (I R) is the same as the Implied fusing time for Preece's equation
cooling of the trace through convection and conduction. based on Onderdonk's equation.
Preece’s equation reportedly assumes no heat loss except
through radiation; i.e. no heat is conducted away from the
wire. In practice on a PCB, there is heat conducted away
from the trace by the board material itself, and by pads and
components, etc. On the other hand, heat loss would be
minimal in most applications in the first few seconds,
especially in the first few fractions of a second. In this
regard, Preece’s assumption appears to be a good one for a
PCB application.
It is possible to calculate an “implied” time to failure
1 I am indebted to Ralph Hersey, Ralph Hersey and Asso-
for Preece’s equation by setting it equal to Onderdonk’s and
ciates, Livermore, CA., and then Rich Nute, Hewlett
solving for time. When this is done, the implied “time” for
Packard, San Diego, CA. for pointing me toward
Preece’s equation to reach the melting point is purely a
Onderdonk’s and Preece’s equations.
function of area and is given by:
.5 2. See “Standard Handbook for Electrical Engineers,” 12
T = .233*A
Ed., McGraw-Hill, p. 4-74
where A is the cross sectional area of the trace in
3. Ibid. Onderdonk’s equation is
square mils. Table 1 shows this relationship. .5
I = A*(log(1 + (Tm-Ta)/(234+Ta))/33*s)
Where I = current in Amps, A = cross sectional area
Summary: in circular mils, Tm = melting temperature of the
o o
Preece’s and Onderdonk’s equations seem to be material in C, Ta = ambient temperature, also in C,
straightforward ways to calculate fusing time and current and s = time in seconds.
for PCB traces when it is only necessary that the trace not
fail (melt) within a defined period of time (say 10 seconds
or less.) But they are not meant to be applied to longer
periods of time. And remember, they have not been verified
empirically on PCBs, so use them with caution and derate
them appropriately.