[time-nuts] Xtal Oscillator Aging

jim_johnson at agilent.com jim_johnson at agilent.com
Wed Oct 26 16:20:14 EDT 2005


  I posed this question to Jack Kusters, now retired
from HP/Agilent.  He and Charles Adams commercialized
the SC-cut crystal for HP in the 10811A oscillator.  He
gave me permission to post his response on the reflector.

Jim Johnson
jim_johnson at agilent.com


Hi Jim,

In addition to everything Tom Clark said (I agree in general with his explanation), there is another aging mechanism associated with stress.  When the crystal blank is manufactured, it is sawn, lapped, ground, etched, and otherwise abused.  All of this produces stress in the blank.  In addition, there are mounting stresses that arise because of the way the blank is mounted on its header, surface stresses that develop because the electrode material when evaporated and then condensed on the surface shrinks as it cools.

All of these result in long-term aging as these stresses need to equilibrate out.  In addition, there are other stress related mechanisms that may result in either long- or short- term aging.  The quartz material is anisotropic, the mounts, electrode material are isotropic.

So, lets assume that we've had the crystal at an elevated, constant temperature.  Over a period of time, all stresses, material, mount, electrode, cracks, etc. equilibrate to their lowest energy level and it appears that aging has stopped.

Now, take it down in temperature.  The anisotropic quartz and the isotropic mount and electrode, have different contraction rates, so the overall system now has a new set of stresses.

Let the unit come to full equilibrium at the new, lower temperature.  Now take it up in temperature to where it was before.  Now we see a whole new set of aging and stress relief.  The only virtue is that aging due to cracks and material stress from manufacturing processes should be mostly gone, so the unit should come to equilibrium much faster.

One further comment, glass sealed crystals are not necessarily the best way to seal a crystal.  It takes heat from a source sufficiently elevated in temperature to melt the glass.  This tends to cause contaminents to migrate from the area being sealed to a cooler spot in the package, usually the crystal.  Contaminents come from gasses from the torch or from junk trapped in the glass.

The cleanest mount one can do is a cold-weld seal under proper conditions.
For example, the HP crystals were put into a vacuum furnace, heated to 300+ deg-C overnite at 10E-7 torr with the can stored next to the crystal.  After reducing the temperature to about 80-84 deg-C, the crystal was frequency plated to within several parts in 10E7.  After that, the mount was placed in the can, the temperature raised up to about 150 deg-C, stabilised in temperature and vacuum, then cold-welded.

Done properly, there is essentially no contamination inside the crystal assembly, most of the other stresses are gone, and the typical HP SC-cut would reach an aging rate of better than 1E-7 per day, within the first 5 days.

Best regards,
Jack Kusters


-----Original Message-----
From: time-nuts-bounces at febo.com [mailto:time-nuts-bounces at febo.com] On Behalf Of Tom Clark, W3IWI
Sent: Sunday, October 23, 2005 9:21 PM
To: time-nuts at febo.com
Subject: [time-nuts] Xtal Oscillator Aging

   Brooke (no relation) commented

Hi Richard:
> It's my understanding that this optimization can be done by changing 
> the oscillator power level at the crystal.
> In the case of the 32768 Hz watch crystal, it must be run a very low 
> power and it has a very low aging rate when compared to higher 
> frequency crystals that are typically run at higher power levels.  I 
> think this is related to the crystal throwing off atoms, so more power 
> means more acceleration and more atoms thrown off.
> Have Fun,
> Brooke Clarke, N6GCE

   It has nothing to do with "throwing off atoms". A Xtal is actually a
   mechanical oscillator, with the quartz slab vibrating (in either its
   fundamental mode, or on an odd overtone); quartz is a piezo-electric
   material so the voltage across the pins of the xtal has a direct
   connection to the mechanical vibration. When an xtal oscillator starts
   up, the associated amplifier generates noise, which then starts the
   xtal vibrating, which generates signal at the right frequency and a
   feedback loop is set up. When you crank up the power to the mechanical
   resonator, the signal increases with respect to the background noise
   (i.e. S/N gets better) which improves the short-term stability.
   Going in the other direction, the mechanical resonant frequency
   changes with time because, as the xtal vibrates, microscopic cracks in
   the structure of the quartz break apart. Running at high power makes
   the crystal generate these microscopic faults at a faster rate; this
   then causes the oscillator to have poorer long-term stability. When an
   xtal is left vibrating (oscillating) in an undisturbed environment,
   the rate of cracking of the quartz decreases, and the oscillator is
   said to "age" to its final frequency.
   But if you subject that same crystal to a mechanical jolt will force
   some new cracks and re-start the aging "diffusion" process. Ditto
   turning the oscillator on & off or a thermal shock can aggravate the
   If the metal can or glass envelope around the xtal outgasses, some of
   the resulting crud (a very scientific term!) from the envelope and
   seal will deposit onto the quartz and also cause aging. For this
   reason, only the cheapest crystals are housed in a metal can with a
   solder seal; cold welding of the can is a much better procedure; and a
   glass envelope is the best. Cheaper than cheap are the WW2 "FT243"
   xtals where the seal is just a rubber gasket or the epoxy seals used
   in some consumer-grade surface mount oscillators.
   The main reason that the 32768 Hz oscillators operate at low power is
   so that watches can run for years on small batteries. But even at
   that, the mechanical xtal resonator (which is built as a tuning fork
   for these low frequencies) is much better than any watch escapement
   ever was!
   73, Tom Clark
time-nuts mailing list
time-nuts at febo.com

More information about the time-nuts mailing list