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 MSA  Vol.12 No.11 , November 2021
Influence of Annealing Atmosphere on Varistor Property of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 Ceramics
Abstract: Varistor ceramics are typical electronic ceramics, which are widely used in circuits of overvoltage protection, high voltage stabilization and high energy surge absorption. TiO2 varistor ceramics has the advantages of low varistor voltage and good dielectric properties, but their low nonlinearity limited the application. The influence of annealing on the varistor properties of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 ceramics was investigated in this paper. TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 varistor ceramics were prepared by the traditional method of ball grinding-forming-sintering and they were annealed in oxygen and nitrogen, respectively. The nonlinear coefficient α and the breakdown voltage EB of the samples were tested using the varistor dc parameter meter. The microstructure of samples was analyzed by XRD, SEM, STEM-EDAX and SAEDP. The results show that during annealing, Sr2+ ions with a larger radius obtain the kinetic energy and are segregated to grain boundaries, which increases the acceptor density of the grain boundaries and improves α. Annealing in an oxygen atmosphere, the enrichment of oxygen at grain boundaries is also helpful to increase the density of acceptor states and the height of the potential barrier, so as to further increase α. Meanwhile, annealing makes crystalline grains grow properly, which results in even grain size, reduces the porosity and increases the density of grains. So EB tends to reduce. As the doping concentration of Nb2O5 and SrCO3 is 0.15 mol%, respectively, and sintering temperature is 1300°C, TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 varistor ceramics annealed in oxygen for 3 h at 750°C achieved the highest nonlinear coefficient α = 8.9 and the lowest breakdown voltage EB = 19.1 V·mm-1, which annealed in nitrogen achieved α = 8.4, EB = 20.6 V·mm-1, both superior to unannealed samples.

1. Introduction

Varistor ceramics are typical electronic ceramics, which are widely used in circuits of overvoltage protection, high voltage stabilization and high energy surge absorption, because of their non-ohmic electrical properties and sensitivity to instantaneous voltage fluctuations [1]. For a given varistor, the non-ohmic properties depend on the structure of the grain boundary barrier of the polycrystalline ceramics [2]. Compared with ZnO and SnO2 varistor ceramics, TiO2 varistor ceramics has the advantages of low varistor voltage and good dielectric properties, which can be used as a varistor-capacitor multifunctional material. Furthermore, a simple preparation process makes it low cost. So it has a good application prospect [3] - [11]. Since the varistor properties of TiO2 ceramics were discovered at Bell Labs in 1982 [2], the researchers have been tried to improve its nonlinearity, namely α value, by studying the effects of donor single-doping, acceptor single-doping and the co-doping of donor and acceptor on its varistor properties [12] [13] [14] [15]. Recently, S. Ekaphan et al. studied dielectric and nonlinear properties of Ca1−1.5xPrxCu3Ti4O12/TiO2 ceramics. Nonlinear properties of the ceramics can be improved by doping with Pr3+ ions [16]. S. J. Yang et al. studied TiO2-based varistor-capacitor ceramics co-doped with fixed Nb2O5, MnO2, Sm2O3 and various contents of Sb2O3. The results indicate that the addition of Sb2O3 effectively decreases the breakdown voltage EB (the voltage corresponding to the current J = 1 mA/cm2), while having less impact on the nonlinear coefficient α [17]. F. C. Peng et al. studied TiO2-based ceramics doped with various contents of Ho2O3 in the range of 0 - 0.6 mol%. The results show that the relative dielectric constant εr and the nonlinear coefficient α of samples firstly ascend and then descend with the increasing of Ho2O3 [18]. K.Y. Kang et al. investigated the influence of GeO2 on α and EB of TiO2-Ta2O5-CaCO3 varistor ceramics. The results show that GeO2 doping changes the microstructures of TiO2-Ta2O5-CaCO3 ceramics, resulting in increased α and decreased EB [19]. Although these methods of doping in the literature have a certain effect on improving the nonlinear coefficient α, it seems difficult to improve further α value by doping. So it is indispensable to seek new methods.

Annealing is a heat treatment that is used to adjust the microstructure and eliminate the defects of materials. Its technological process is heating the sample to a suitable temperature for a period of time, followed by slow cooling, so as to obtain a near equilibrium state of properties. R. Mannam et al. studied the reversible p-type properties of pulsed laser deposited (P, N) co-doped ZnO thin films. As the film grows, it changes from p-type to n-type over a period of 120 days. Non-annealed N-type films contained donor impurities hydrogen and carbon, and the films were transformed into p-type semiconductors after annealing at 800˚C [20]. D.M. Priyadarshini et al. studied the effect of the annealing environment on SnO2 thin film transistors. The results showed that with the increase of nitrogen concentration, the performance of the equipment improves [21]. M.J. Zheng et al. studied the effect of annealing on GaN-based semiconductor capacitors with ZrO2 as dielectric layer prepared by atomic deposition method. The results showed that the capacitance gradually increased with the increase of annealing temperature from 300˚C to 500˚C [22]. A. Hosokawa et al. studied the effect of annealing on the properties of nano-composite Nd-Fe-Ti-B magnets. The results showed that A short time of annealing at a temperature close to the crystallization temperature can improve the magnetic properties, while a higher temperature and longer time of annealing would lead to the deterioration of magnetic properties [23]. J.Z. Zhao et al. studied the influence of annealing atmospheres on the varistor properties of TiO2 varistors doped with Nb2O5 and Bi2O3. The results indicated that the height and width of the potential barrier and the breakdown voltage decrease when annealing in vacuum and H2 [24]. It can be seen from these studies that annealing is effective in changing microstructures and improving some physical properties of materials.

In order to improve the nonlinear coefficient α of TiO2 varistor ceramics and further reduce the breakdown voltage EB, TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 varistor ceramics are prepared by the traditional ceramics preparation process and annealed in different atmospheres in this work. The influence of annealing on the microstructure and the varistor properties of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 ceramics was studied.

2. Material and Methods

Table 1 shows the initial doping contents of each sample. The mixture was grinded in a planetary ball mill to obtain the reactants. The purity of each reagent is as follows: TiO2 (powder, 99.9%), Nb2O5 (powder, 99.9%), SrCO3 (powder, 99.9%). All reagents were obtained from Guanghua Sci-tech Co., Ltd, China. The mixture was grinded for 10 h according to the mass ratio of 1:2:4 of powder to water blended with alcohol (water: alcohol = 3:1) to balls. After homogenization, each blend was dried at 90˚C for 10 h and de-agglomerated in a 400 mesh sieve. The obtained powder was isostatically pressed at 160 MPa into tablets (10 mm in diameter and 1 mm thick). The tablets were degummed at 500˚C for 1 h in a box-type resistance furnace and sintered at 1250˚C, 1300˚C, 1350˚C, and 1400˚C for 3 h in a tube furnace, respectively. The tablets were cooled to room temperature through furnace cooling. The TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 ceramic sheets obtained by the above method were coated with silver electrode. The varistor properties of all sheets were tested. Next, the samples with the best varistor properties

Table 1. Doping contents of samples.

were annealed in oxygen and in nitrogen for 3 h at 650˚C, 700˚C, 750˚C and 800˚C, respectively, and the varistor properties of them were tested again. XRD was used to analyze the phase of samples. SEM was used to observe the morphology of the samples. STEM-EDAX was used to analyze the contents of each element in grains and at grain boundaries. SAEDP was used to analyze the crystallization degree of the samples.

3. Results and Discussion

3.1. Varistor Properties

Table 2 shows the values of the nonlinear coefficient α and the breakdown voltage EB of samples with different doping concentrations sintered for 3 h at different temperatures. As can be seen from Table 2, when the sintering temperature is 1300˚C, TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 varistor ceramics have better varistor properties (α = 6.2, EB = 23.6 V∙mm−1 for sample #2). Subsequently, the varistor properties of sample #2 sintered at 1300˚C were studied after annealing in oxygen and in nitrogen for 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, and 4 h at 650˚C, 700˚C, 750˚C and 800˚C, respectively. Table 3 shows the electrical properties of the samples, where #O2 and #N2 represent the sample annealed in oxygen for 2 h or in nitrogen for 2 h,

Table 2. Electrical properties of samples with different sinter temperatures (EB/V∙mm−1).

Table 3. Electrical properties of samples annealed for 2 - 4 h in air and in nitrogen (EB/V∙mm−1).

respectively; #O3 and #N3 represent the sample annealed in oxygen for 3 h or in nitrogen for 3 h; #O2.5, #N2.5, #O3.5, #N3.5, #O4, and #N4, in a similar fashion. As can be seen from Table 3, the samples annealed at the same time at the same temperature in oxygen or in nitrogen show a slight difference in nonlinear coefficient α and breakdown voltage EB. The sample annealed for 3 h at 750˚C in oxygen has the best varistor performance with α = 8.9 and EB = 19.1 V∙mm−1, the sample annealed for 3 h at 750˚C in nitrogen has the comparative performance with α = 8.4 and EB = 20.6 V∙mm−1, both superior to the unannealed sample with α = 6.2 and EB = 23.6 V∙mm−1. Annealing significantly improves the varistor performance of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 ceramics. With the increase of annealing temperature and annealing time, α value starts to decrease, which indicates that the annealing temperature and annealing time have a significant influence on the varistor performance of the samples.

Figure 1 is the I - V graph of the samples annealed in oxygen and in nitrogen for 3 h, where #O65 represents the sample annealed in oxygen at 650˚C for 3 h, and #N65 represents the sample annealed in nitrogen at 650˚C for 3 h; #O70 represents the sample annealed in oxygen at 700˚C for 3 h, and #N70 represents the sample annealed in nitrogen at 700˚C for 3 h; #O75, #N75, #O80, and #N80, in a similar fashion. The two samples annealed in oxygen and in nitrogen at the same temperature for 3 h show a slight difference in I - V graphs. However, the I - V graphs of the samples annealed at different temperatures show noteworthy differences. At the same annealing temperature, the I - V graph of the sample annealed in oxygen lies below that of the sample annealed in nitrogen, indicating the nonlinearity of the sample annealed in oxygen is slightly better than the sample annealed in nitrogen. The slopes of I - V graphs of the two samples annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in oxygen and in nitrogen are the minimum, indicating that α values are the maximum and the varistor properties are the best in all annealed samples. The average barrier height ΦB at grain boundaries of sample #2, #O75 is calculated in light of the formula [25]

Figure 1. The I- V characteristics of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 ceramics annealed for 3 h at 650, 700, 750 and 800˚C in oxygen and nitrogen, respectively.

J = A T 2 exp [ ( β E 1 / 2 Φ B ) / k T ] (1)

where A* and k represent the Richardson constant and the Boltzmann constant, respectively. T is the absolute temperature. The two groups of electric current J and electric field E were tested at the same temperature T. The values of β and ΦB were calculated. Five ΦB values were gotten for each sample and the average was listed in Table 4. From Table 4, the average potential barrier height ΦB in #O75 and #N75 is higher than #2. ΦB of #O75 is higher than #N75.

3.2. Microstructure Analysis

Figure 2 shows the XRD spectra of sample #2 (a), #O75 (b) and #N75 (c). It can be seen from Figure 2 that the backgrounds of diffraction peaks of the annealed

Figure 2. XRD patterns of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 ceramics unannealed (#2), annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in oxygen (#O75)and in nitrogen (#N75).

Table 4. Diffraction peak change near 2θ = 27.5˚ and average grain boundary barrier height of sample unannealed (#2), annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in air (#OA) and annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in nitrogen (#NA).

samples in oxygen (#O75) and nitrogen (#N75) are smoother than that of the unannealed sample (#2). And the intensity of diffraction peaks is increased, indicating that the grain growth of annealed samples is more complete. Before annealing, the additional diffraction peaks appear at 28.92˚, between 50˚ - 53˚ and between 57˚ - 62˚. After annealing, these diffraction peaks significantly weaken or disappear, indicating that a part of doping atoms with a smaller radius enter into TiO2 lattice during annealing.

Table 4 shows the correlation parameters of the diffraction peaks near 2θ = 27˚ for sample #2, #O75 and #N75. The diffraction peak strength increases and the full width at half maximum (FWHM) decreases in sample #O75 and #N75, indicating the grains well-developed. The positions of the strongest diffraction peaks in the three samples are different. The strongest diffraction peak of the unannealed sample #2 is located at 2θ = 54.31˚, while that of the two annealed samples #O75 and #N75 are located at 2θ = 27.46˚. The diffraction peaks of #O75 and #N75 move to a higher angle, and the diffraction peak of #2 at 2θ = 28.92˚ disappears after annealing, indicating that the annealing causes atomics relaxation and ultimately improves the crystallization degree of the annealed samples.

Figure 3 shows SEM photographs of the fracture surface of sample #2 (a), #O75 (b), and #N75 (c). Comparing (a), (b) and (c), it can be seen that the grains of sample #O75 and #N75 are bigger with more uniform size and lower porosity than sample #2, which is conducive to good electrical properties. The grain boundary of #2 is more fuzzy than that of #O75 and #N75, which suggests the grains of #O75 and #N75 obtained second development during annealing.

Figure 3. SEM images of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 ceramics unannealed (#2) (a), annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in oxygen (#O75) (b) and in nitrogen (#N75) (c).

Figure 4 is STEM images of sample #2 (a), #O75 (b) and #N75 (c). Points 1 and 2 are located in grains, and points 3 and 4 are located at grain boundaries in the three figures. The contents of elements at each point are recorded in Table 5. By analyzing element contents of adopted points, the content of element Sr at grain boundaries is higher in the annealed samples #O75 and #N75 than the unannealed sample #2. The reason is that Sr2+ ions with a larger radius

Figure 4. STEM-EDAX images of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 ceramics unannealed (#2) (a), annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in oxygen (#O75) (b) and in nitrogen (#N75) (c)

Table 5. Element contents in grains and at grain boundaries of sample unannealed (#2), annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in air (#O75) and annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in nitrogen (#N75).

obtains kinetic energy and then are segregated to grain boundaries in the annealing process. So the content of Sr2+ in the grains of the annealed samples in oxygen or nitrogen tends to decrease, while the content of Sr2+ at boundaries tends to increase. The content of element O of sample #O75 annealed in oxygen is higher than sample #2 and #N75 at grain boundary.

Figure 5 is the STEM-EDAX line scanning graph across the grain boundary of sample #2, #O75 and #N75. As shown in Figure 5(a), the oxygen concentration at the grain boundary of #O75 is higher. The reason for it is that the oxygen is enriched at the grain boundary for sample #O75 annealed in oxygen atmosphere [24], which is why the nonlinear coefficient of #O75 is slightly higher than that of #N75. In Figure 5(c), it can be seen that the element Sr tends to segregation towards grain boundary. After annealing, Sr content at grain boundary is much higher than that in grain. By the mutation of the Sr concentration at the grain boundary, the width of the grain boundary of the two annealed samples is estimated to be about 3.56 nm. In Figure 5(b) and Figure 5(d), elements Ti and Nb are randomly distributed in grains and grain boundaries.

Figure 5. STEM-EDAX line scanning graph across grain boundary (shown in Figure 4) for sample #2 (unannealed), sample #O75 (annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in oxygen) and #N75 (annealed at 750˚C for 3 h in nitrogen).

Figure 6(a) and Figure 6(b) are the selected area electron diffraction patterns (SAEDP) of the grains in sample #2 and #O75, respectively. The electron diffraction pattern of unannealed sample #2 has the amorphous central diffraction spot and the polycrystalline diffraction rings. In the electron diffraction pattern of annealed sample #O75, the regular diffraction spot of single crystal is found, which indicated that the grains of annealed sample #O75 developed well.

3.3. Mechanism Analysis

A high α value and a low EB value are required for TiO2-based low voltage varistor. The barrier structure of grain boundary decides α and EB. Increasing ΦB can reduce the background current and decreasing XD can improve the electron tunneling effect. Therefore, increasing ΦB and decreasing XD can improve α value. ΦB is determined by the formula [26]

Φ B = e 2 N S 2 / 2 ε 0 ε r N D (2)

where ε0 is the dielectric constant of vacuum, εr is the relative dielectric constant of semi-conducting ceramic, ND is the donor concentration in the semi-conductor depletion layer, NS is the acceptor interface state density, e is electron charge. Decreasing ND can increase ΦB, and therefore increase α. But on the basis of the formula [27]

X D = 2 ε 0 ε r Φ B / e N D (3)

decreasing ND makes XD increase and is not conducive to improving α. What is more, decreasing ND reduces semi-conducting degree of grains, which goes against the low EB. Therefore, the doping content of the donor has an optimal

Figure 6. The contrast of the selected area electron diffraction patterns (SAEDP) for sample #2 (a), #O75 (b).

value. In like manner, increasing NS makes ΦB increase, and therefore increases α, but also increases XD. Therefore, the doping content of the acceptor also has an optimal value. As the optimal doping content of the donor and the acceptor is determined, adjusting the doping content of the donor and the acceptor can't optimize α and EB any longer, but appropriate annealing can further optimize α and EB of the TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 varistor ceramic. This can be explained as follows. The nonlinear coefficient of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 varistor ceramics can be appropriately improved by annealing, mainly because Sr2+ is segregated towards the grain boundary as far as possible in the annealing process, which increases the density of acceptor state and the height of potential barrier at grain boundaries. Annealing in the oxygen atmosphere, the oxygen enrichment at grain boundaries is also helpful to increase the density of acceptor states and the height of potential barrier, so as to further improve the nonlinear coefficient. Annealing at appropriate temperature for appropriate time can make the grains grow appropriately; the grain size even and the porosity reduce. Meanwhile, the number of grain boundaries and the total area of grain boundaries decrease. Therefore the breakdown voltage EB tends to decrease.

4. Conclusion

In this work, it is found that annealing can further improve the microstructure of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 varistor ceramics and enhance the nonlinear coefficient α. During annealing, the acceptor ions Sr2+ with larger radius are further segregated towards the grain boundaries because of obtaining kinetic energy, which increases the density of acceptor state and the height of potential barrier at grain boundaries. Therefore α increases. Annealing in an oxygen atmosphere, the enrichment of oxygen at grain boundaries is also helpful to increase the density of acceptor states and the height of the potential barrier, so as to further increase the nonlinear coefficient. Annealing at the appropriate temperature for an appropriate time can make the grains grow appropriately, the grain size even and the porosity reduce, which results in the number of grain boundaries and the total area of grain boundaries decreasing. Therefore the breakdown voltage EB tends to decrease. As the doping concentration of Nb2O5 and SrCO3 is 0.15 mol%, respectively, and the sintering temperature is 1300˚C, TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 varistor ceramics are annealed for 3 h at 750˚C in oxygen possess best varistor performance with α = 8.9 and EB = 19.1 V∙mm−1. With further selecting dopants and optimizing annealing temperature, TiO2 varistor ceramics are expected to obtain higher nonlinear coefficients and realize their practical application.

Acknowledgements

The present work was supported by the Agricultural Joint Programs of Yunnan Province [grant number 2018FG001-063], the University-Level Research Project [grant number 112004], National Natural Science Foundation of China [grant number 31860188] and the Applied Basic Research Programs of Yunnan Province (2019FB067).

Cite this paper: Kang, K. , Zhu, H. , Zhu, G. and Deng, S. (2021) Influence of Annealing Atmosphere on Varistor Property of TiO2-Nb2O5-SrCO3 Ceramics. Materials Sciences and Applications, 12, 461-474. doi: 10.4236/msa.2021.1211030.
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