How do Antistatic Bags Work?

Computer boards and sensitive electronic components need protection from electrostatic discharge, especially at the time of shipping, handling, and assembly. This requirement has led to the development of an entirely new class of antistatic packaging materials. Now, a multi-million dollar packaging industry exists, with major developments in polymers. These are special conductive polyethylene and other laminates covered with very thin metalized films. This packaging industry saves several hundred million dollars each year for the computer and electronic industry, dwarfing almost all other industrial and commercial antistatic abatement enterprises.

To demonstrate the working of an antistatic bag that store and ship assembled boards and electronic components, one needs an apparatus including a tonal electrostatic voltmeter or TESV, several antistatic bags big enough to cover the TESV mounted on a tripod, a plastic tube or rod, and a rubbing cloth. Wool or silk cloth will work well with a Teflon, Nylon, or PVC pipe.

To disallow any movement of the TESV when operating, mount the instrument on a tripod, turn it on, and zero the instrument. Now charge a plastic rod by rubbing it with the cloth, and bring it close to the sensing head of the TESV. The instrument will respond by indicating the presence of electrostatic charge.

Covering the TESV with one of the antistatic bags shows it now registers little or no charge when repeating the experiment. Even with the charged conducting object discharging directly to the bag, the TESV shows little or no charge indication. The only possible explanation is the conductive bag shields the TESV from the electrostatic field.

The bag shields the instrument even though it is not connected to ground. If it were necessary to ground the bag to make it work, the antistatic bag would have been more inconvenient and ineffective than they are now. Grounding is not necessary here as electric charge resides only on the outer surface and does not penetrate inside, or into any void enclosed by the conductive material. The ungrounded bag simply holds the charge harmlessly only on the outside.

This also solves the problem of removing a sensitive component from inside the bag. When a person handles the bag, the contact with the hand grounds the bag and drains the charge from its surface. However, if the person were wearing an insulated glove, the component would draw a strong electric spark when it is withdrawn from the bag, and may be damaged.

Antistatic and static shielding materials are commercially available for every size and shape necessary. Specifications usually refer to MIL standards or the rate of charge dissipation, along with abrasion resistance, thickness, and others. Some advertisers refer to their antistatic bags as Faraday cages, since it does not allow charge to penetrate inside the bag.

Another type of antistatic bag has no metal layer, but is actually a bag made of a conductive polyethylene film. The manufacturer claims the bag can dissipate 5 KV in 2 seconds. Although in practice it is the electric charge that dissipates, the voltage is far easier and more convenient to monitor, and is directly proportional to the charge for a fixed capacitance geometry.