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Get the lead out or keep it in? A no-win situation.

tinwhiskers-small1.jpg It’s a terrible twist of irony. The Chinese can’t seem to keep the lead out, while everyone else may be doing too good of a job keeping it out. So reports the LA Times, in the article Lead phase-out may destroy electronics. The problem? Tin whiskers, like the ones on terminations, shown here..

“They’ve ruined missiles, silenced communications satellites and forced nuclear power plants to shut down. Pacemakers, consumer gadgets and even a crucial part of a space shuttle have fallen victim. The culprits? Tiny splinters — whiskers, they’re called — that sprout without warning from tin solder and finishes deep inside electronics. By some estimates, the resulting short circuits have leveled as much as $10 billion in damage since they were first noticed in the 1940s. Now, some electronics makers worry that the destruction will be more widespread, and the dollar amounts more draining, as the European Union and governments around the world enact laws to eliminate the best-known defense — lead — from electronic devices. ‘The EU’s decision was irresponsible and not based on sound science,” said Joe Smetana, a principal engineer and tin whisker expert with French telecommunications equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent. ‘We’re solving a problem that isn’t and creating a bunch of new ones.’” The subject of tin whiskers has long been controversial among the design engineering community, with blogs and forums buzzing noisily on the topic, including this post from the site Pushback, an anti-lead-free site. “It was bound to happen. IPC and Jedec now have a conference to address reliability issues of lead free………….The train has indeed left the station, and as predicted it is running into some issues….. Here’s a clue guys – lobby Europe so that we can use environmentally friendly leaded solder and you will not need the conference. They have to review the whole thing by 2008 so seize the opportunity.. ” And we won’t even get started on all the paperwork….

Tags: engineering community, nuclear power plants, smetana, space shuttle, splinters

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4 Comments

  1. Alex Hiley
    October 24, 2007 08:50

    If you look at the list of products which are still allowed to use leaded solder, they are :
    Military products
    Medical products
    Servers, storage and storage array systems
    Network infrastructure equipment for switching, signalling, transmission as well as network management for telecommunication.
    What do these all have in common ? They are applications where reliabilty is paramount.
    So it was obviously realised that reliability would suffer as a result of the changeover.
    Leadfree equipment is likely to be scrapped earlier than it would have been if leaded solder was used, which is rather counterproductive environmentally speaking.

  2. October 22, 2007 18:46

    The reliability of our products is sacrosanct.
    We absolutely refuse to use lead-free solder.
    Paul Mardon
    Managing Director
    Pulsar Light
    Cambridge

  3. Martin
    October 19, 2007 07:48

    “Which is why most lead free-solders now used in the EU are silver/copper alloys.”
    Most solder pastes contain silver and copper in small amounts but they do not exclude tin. Most solder pastes are 95%+ tin.

  4. Arthur Wheeler
    October 19, 2007 01:21

    Which is why most lead free-solders now used in the EU are silver/copper alloys. Tin has always been recognised as a fickle metal. Napolian found this out during the French Invasion of Prussia and Russia – during the winter the tin buttons reverted to grey tin – an enantimourphous crystalline version of tin which falls to a grey powder in low temperatures. Napolian’s Soldiers found this out when all their tunic and trouser buttons fell to dust during the depths of Russian Winter!
    Tin Whiskers have always been a problem – this is not news!
    Arthur.

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