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Why exactly do chips start malfunctioning once they overheat?

Sharptooth asked a very nice question about how does overheat affect electronics. That raised me the question of what does cold weather do to them. Allmost all datasheets define maximum ratings for operational and storage temperatures. It is understandable that temperature affects semiconductors functioning a lot but can IC's be destroyed by using them in cold conditions?

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I've never seen a semiconductor destroyed by cold weather but operating them below their rated temperature can sure cause them to malfunction.

Years ago, we were using one particular brand of 7805 regulator that was rated for use at 0C through 70C. When used outdoors, it functioned as a very nice thermostat and turned OFF at about -20F. The cure was to replace it with a part that was rated to work cold.

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There are two problems with low temperatures:

1) Humidity - condensation can create shorts, noise and other bad things

2) You exceed the absolute maximum ratings of the part. Most of the time this means the package either has not been tested, or is not rated for low temperatures. Since 0C or -55C is generally a lower limit for most any condition you'd encounter on earth, manufactures don't test beyond that. If you get really cold, brittle parts could break due to thermal expansion differences in materials.

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