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A facility for electrical contact resistance measurement

H. D. Maheshappa, J. Nagaraju, and M. V. KrishnaMurthy
Department of Instrumentation, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560 012, India
~Received 19 September 1997; accepted for publication 2 December 1997!
A test facility was developed for directly measuring the electrical contact resistance of switch gear
contacts of real sizes under different environmental conditions and contact pressures. It can measure
contact resistance to an order of one-tenth of a mV. It sources a constant current in the order of mA
and hence avoids initial arcing across contacts. Experiments were conducted on brass–brass
samples with different contact pressures and the results are in agreement with published theoretical
calculations. © 1998 American Institute of Physics. @S0034-6748~98!02803-2#

I. INTRODUCTION contacts. The hydraulic loading to impress a pressure at the

contact can be varied from 0 to 5 kN. The contact resistance
Most electrical appliances use metal–metal contacts for of the brass–brass contacts is measured in vacuum, with dif-
switching applications. In order to qualify a good contact, the ferent contact pressures, to an accuracy of 0.1 mV.
electrical contact resistance is often used as a measure and
therefore accurate measurement of the electrical contact re-
sistance assumes importance. A number of variables such as II. DESCRIPTION OF TEST SETUP
contact pressure, contact geometry, surface finish, environ-
ment and material properties such as microhardness have a Figure 1 shows a schematic of the contact conductance
significant effect on contact resistance. Tamai1 used a cry- cell. It is made of a stainless steel ~SS!-304 sheet rolled and
ostat with a double walled Dewar to maintain the contact welded to form a double walled vessel with 5 mm space
specimen at a low temperature in the range 300–77 K for between the walls. The vessel is welded onto a base plate, 16
liquid nitrogen and to 4.2 K for liquid helium. The measure- mm thick, also of SS-304. The chamber is provided with
ment of resistance was limited to an order of a few mV and standard feedthroughs for carrying gas transfer tubes and
the contact force was of the order of 0.1–1 N. Rao et al.2 electrical leads from the contact specimens to the multimeter
used a tubular furnace which is inserted into a vacuum cham- and from the load cell to the load indicator. The contact
ber. The specimen plate is anchored between the spring conductance cell houses a vertical cylindrical column sup-
loaded contact pins and an insulator plate which is located ported by four pillars welded onto the base plate. The pillars
inside the tubular furnace. This setup has a limitation in that are stainless steel rods of 8 mm diameter and 190 mm length.
the sample thickness is limited to a fraction of a mm. Spring They have M8 threads up to a length of 80 mm. The column
loaded pins are used to make electrical connections which is held in position by a top plate 6 mm thick and a Teflon
are unreliable. The setup cannot be used for pressurized con- cylindrical collar. In the test column, the samples are held at
tacts as there is no loading mechanism involved. Braunovic3 the center with a pair of sample holders such that the con-
used a universal compression machine to clamp the samples tacting surfaces touch each other under axial load. The
and an X-Y recorder to record the voltage drop against the sample holders are of stainless steel and are supported by a
load applied. A dc current of 20 A was passed through the ball and conical seating arrangement. The top plate can be
samples. A pre-load of 10 N is applied across the contacts to moved along the threaded portion of the main pillars, which
avoid initial arcing due to high current. are fastened with hexagonal nuts as shown in Fig. 1, to ac-
In this article, we describe a test facility developed to commodate samples of different heights. The whole column
measure the contact resistance across metal–metal contacts is enclosed by a stainless steel bell jar, forming a vacuum
at different ambient temperatures from 77 to 600 K and am- chamber. The chamber is evacuated with a vacuum system
bient pressures from 1025 Torr to 10 bar. The test chamber shown in Fig. 2. It consists of a diffusion pump and a 250
can be filled with various gases like N2, SF6, air, etc., at l /h back rotary pump which creates a vacuum of 1025 Torr
various pressures in the range just mentioned. Contacts inside the chamber.
10–25 mm in diameter with thicknesses from a fraction of a The specimen loading hydraulic system has a pump
mm to a few cm can be accommodated. The electrical leads driven by a 3f motor, which pumps the oil from the oil
are soldered which will not affect the property of the mate- reservoir at constant speed to exert pressure on a hydraulic
rial. This eliminates the need for either spring loaded posts or jack. This jack axially loads the test specimens from the
brazed joints. It also avoids bending or buckling of the pins, bottom as shown in Fig. 2. The system can be operated using
which can give rise to unreliable connectivity. A program- a pressure switch to maintain a pre-set value of constant
mable multimeter is used to measure the resistance to an pressure up to a maximum pressure of 253106 N/m2. A
accuracy of 0.1 mV and to source a constant current of the button type load cell provides the signal to a digital load
order of a few mA so as to avoid the initial arcing across indicator with a resolution of 1 kg to indicate the force acting

0034-6748/98/69(3)/1534/3/$15.00 1534 © 1998 American Institute of Physics

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Rev. Sci. Instrum., Vol. 69, No. 3, March 1998 Maheshappa et al. 1535

FIG. 3. Contact resistance Rc of the brass–brass samples vs contact force

Fc 21/3.
FIG. 1. Schematic of contact conductance cell.

on the samples. It measures the load up to 1 ton with an A pair of brass pellets having a diameter 16 and thick-
accuracy of 60.1%. ness of 10 mm are made with the contacting flat surfaces,
An 8 21 digit multimeter ~DMM! 2002 ~Keithley Instru- polished with standard grit 800 emery paper. The opposite
ments Ltd.! which can measure resistance with a resolution surfaces are machined to have 2 and 4 mm diam buttons. The
of 0.1 mV is used to measure the contact resistance. This Teflon insulated copper leads are soldered on these buttons
multimeter is configured for four wire measurement which and are taken out for electrical connectivity through the slots
minimizes the lead resistance including the resistance of sol- provided on the sample holders. These samples are placed
dered joints. The meter has a built-in current source which one on top of the other to form a ‘‘contact.’’ This contact is
can provide a constant current of 7.1873 mA, irrespective of placed between two sample holders, which are separated by
the load. There is a provision in the instrument for compen- two mica washers as shown in Fig. 1 to form the test column.
sating for the effect of thermal emfs that are likely to occur The column is mounted inside the contact conductance cell.
in the measurement due to temperature variations. The DMM The cell is evacuated to a pressure of 1025 mbar. The DMM
is interfaced to a personal computer using a general purpose is powered 4 h before collection of the experimental data.
interface bus ~GPIB! interface card to log the data at required The test leads are soldered to Teflon insulated, multistrand
intervals of time. The collected data are the average of the wires 0.1 mm in diameter. The other ends are soldered to the
integral values, sampled over a known duration of time. Soft- samples. The hydraulic pump is started. The solenoid valve
ware has been developed to log and postprocess the data. that acts as a pressure switch is dethrottled. The load indica-
tor is energized and adjusted to read zero with no load. The
solenoid valve is throttled to increase the pressure on the
samples. The applied force is read on the load indicator and
the resistance value is read on the multimeter. The procedure
is repeated for incremental lods in steps of 1 kg up to 200 kg.


The contact resistance (Rc) of the brass–brass samples
is plotted against contact force (Fc 21/3), shown in Fig. 3. It
is observed that the contact resistance decreases with the
increase in contact pressure. In the literature,4 it is stated that
the Rc5Kc Fc 21/3 law holds true in the elastic region of the
material of contact. The load bearing subareas of a nominally
flat contact are indentations of different shapes. Some of
them are deep indentations; others are shallow with smaller
depths. Consequently the average pressure at the surface will
be very much smaller than the contact hardness (H). For a
FIG. 2. Electrical contact conductance test setup. well polished contact member, it can be assumed to be

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1536 Rev. Sci. Instrum., Vol. 69, No. 3, March 1998 Maheshappa et al.

0.02H. 5 Yield stress depends on the strain hardening. For where, r c is the radius of the area of apparent contact,4 r is
continuously loaded contacts, the strain-hardening is greater. the resistivity (8.531028 V m!, and E is Young’s modulus
The yield stress is much smaller than the contact hardness (1031010 N/m2). For the forces above 80 N, a deviation
(H5100) of the material; it can be assumed to be 0.1H. 5 from the above law is observed when the material is in the
The actual contact area is assumed to be 20% of the apparent plastic region.
contact area. With these assumptions, the contact force is
calculated to be 80 N. At this point, brass yields into the
plastic region from the elastic region. 0.232 N21/3 shown in
Fig. 3 corresponds to the value of ~80 N!21/3. there are seven
values of resistance measured for the forces below 80 N. A 1
T. Tamai, IEEE Trans. Compon. Hybrids Manuf. Technol. 9, 41 ~1986!.
straight line fit through these values has a slope of 739.6 G. V. Narasimha Rao, V. S. Sastry, T. S. Radhakrishnan, and V.
mV/N21/3. This is in good agreement with the constant Kc 3
Seshagiri, Rev. Sci. Instrum. 67, 333 ~1996!.
which is calculated to be 744 mV/N21/3: M. Braunovic, IEEE Trans. Compon. Hybrids Manuf. Technol. 8, 313
J. I. Queflelec, N. Bennjemaa, D. Travers, and G. Pethieu, IEEE Trans.
K c5 21/3 , Compon. Hybrids Manuf. Technol. 14, 90 ~1991!.
1.1p r 1/3
c E 5
R. Holm, Electric Contacts, 4th ed. ~Springer, New York, 1981!.

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