Tin Whiskers 101: What Are They?

Folks,

Tin whiskers are very fine filaments or whiskers of tin that form out of the surface of the tin. See Figure 1. They are the result of stress release in the tin. Tin whiskers are a phenomenon that is surprising when first encountered, as their formation just doesn’t seem intuitive.

Figure 1. Note how thin a tin whisker can be compared to a human hair. The image is from the NASA Tin Whisker Website

They are a concern, as they can cause electrical short circuits or intermittent short circuits as a fusible link. Lead in tin-lead solder greatly suppresses tin whisker growth. Therefore, with the advent of lead-free solders there is a justifiable concern for decreasing reliability due to tin whisker growth in electronics.

Tin whiskers can vary in length and width, as is seen in Figure 2. Note that although only about 10% are as long a 1000 microns (1mm). That length and occurrence rate is such as to cause many reliability concerns.

Figure 2. The length and width of some tin whiskers. The source is also the NASA Tin Whisker Website.

Over the following weeks I plan to post how tin whiskers form and strategies to alleviate them. Most of the information I will post comes from a paper I presented with Annaka Balch at the SMTA PanPac 2019.

NASA has an excellent website that provides much information about tin whiskers and is a source for historic critical failures caused by tin whiskers.

Cheers,

Dr. Ron

Service Life

A reader writes:

My company makes an electronic product that requires a 40- year shelf life. We assemble with tin-lead solder on FR-4 PWBs. The product is to replace older technology (i.e. 1960-70s), but has some newer components such as BGAs, SOICs, and PQFPs. The product will be stored in dry nitrogen at 70F.  We take great care in manufacturing, by cleaning, inspecting, and testing the end product.

My question is, Do you know of any studies that would discuss the reliability of products stored or in use for 40 years?

My sense is that our reader will be successful, but his question is profound and hard to answer with confidence. The military would like their electronics to perform for that long, but realistically much of it is replaced every 10 years or so. If you look at something like the B-52 bomber, which debuted in 1952, the electronics have been upgraded regularly. So there isn’t as much 40-year electronics experience as one might think. An exception being the IBM AP-101 computer. This computer was kept in service for over 30 years, because it served its function and had survived the rigorous and expensive military qualification testing.

However, anecdotal data might support optimism for 40-year shelf life. In a class I teach at Dartmouth, The Technology of Everyday Things, I have sought out some old transistor radios from the late 1960s and early 70s to show the class how this old technology works. Anytime I have every found an old device like this, they always work, unless the batteries have leaked inside the radio.

This question raises an interesting thought. Although those of us in electronics assembly are concerned with tin-lead and lead-free solder joint life, what about the modern devices inside the components? Forty years is a long time. How will the 3D-22 nanometer copper circuit lines in a modern microprocessor hold up over this amount of time? These circuit lines lines are so fine that the 22nm width is only about 70 atoms.  In addition, copper integrated circuits are still a relatively new technology. I’m sure much accelerated life testing has been done on such circuits, but would such testing confirm 40 years of shelf or service life?

I would appreciate any thoughts that readers have on these questions.

Cheers,

Dr. Ron

Tin Bells Going Off

You may remember that more than a year ago there was much speculation that tin whiskers may be behind the Toyota unintended acceleration problem. At the time I spoke out because there was no data to support the speculation. Now there are data, as Mike Pecht and his CALCE Team at the University of Maryland have found numerous tin whiskers in the Toyota brake assemblies of concern.

Although the tin whiskers were not implicated in any failure, their presence is cause for alarm, and action should be taken to address this issue. Tin whiskers should not be found in mission critical devices. Pecht’s team has an algorithm that calculates the risk from tin whiskers that are discovered. The risk is 140 per 1 million — not high, but with a million or so Toyotas on the road, clearly this is cause for alarm.

As you may know, I live in Woodstock, Vermont.  Many friends have asked how we are doing after hurricane Irene. Personally, my wife and I escaped with no damage to our house and only a bit of inconvenience (no water for 5 days). The town of Woodstock suffered considerable damage, but was, on the whole, fortunate. Some of the neighboring towns had all roads in and out washed away. Route 4 between Woodstock and Rutland has numerous sections destroyed. The flooding was declared by the governor to be the worst disaster in Vermont history. The photo is from the Valley News. It shows a wooden pedestrian bridge built to carry supplies into Bethel, VT by foot. There is no passable road, even for ATVs.

Best,

Dr. Ron