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.
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.
Imagine my excitement when Laurence Knight of the BBC contacted me to see if I was interested in being interviewed on the topic of tin pest, with a secondary discussion on tin whiskers. After a 30-minute phone call, it appeared that I passed muster, as I was asked to come to their studio to have a formal interview. Immediately, visions of visiting London crowded my mind. I haven’t been to London in a while and I would like to see the Tower of London and the London Science Museum again. Suddenly, a dreadful thought sweep over me, they probably have a studio in the US, perhaps Boston. So, in my mind, I quickly settled on a visit to the Boston Science Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see if there is any news on the fate of the art treasures stolen 25 years ago. Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” was one of the paintings stolen in the 1990 robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
Even this meager plan was soon dashed, when Laurence informed me that they could likely use a PBS studio in Vermont or New Hampshire. I actually ended up in a radio studio at Dartmouth. Somehow by using an ISDN telephone line and recording at Dartmouth and in the UK they can achieve acceptable fidelity.
From the outset, I wanted my message to be:
The reliability concerns for tin whiskers are well founded, however there are many mitigation and design techniques that can reduce tin whisker risk.
Tin pest is much rarer than tin whiskers, however there appears to be little effort in mitigating tin pest at all. This lack of attention may cause some tin pest failures in cold environments.
Interestingly, the mitigation for tin pest (2% bismuth or 0.5% antimony) also dramatically suppresses tin whiskers.
So, on January 20, I was interviewed in the Dartmouth radio station (alas only ¼ of a mile from my office) for 20 minutes. The broadcast occurred on January 29. I didn’t know that my interview was part of a much larger story on tin metal. The 20 minutes I spoke was pared down to just a few. I let you decided if the trimmed version got the message across I intended. I am speaking about 35% through the audio file.
I just returned from SMTA/INEMI’s Medical Conference in Milpitas (near San Jose/San Fransisco), where I spoke on tin whiskers. I then quickly traveled to Costa Mesa (400 miles south, near Los Angeles), to IPC’s Tin Whiskers/Reliability Conference, where I spoke on Weibull Analysis. Both shows where attended by 80-plus people.
Most noteworthy, at the IPC Tin Whiskers Meeting, was Raytheon’s Dave Pinsky’s presentation, titled: “Tin Whiskers at a Large Defense OEM: Past. Present, Future.” In addition to discussing claims that some vendors have of producing whiskerless tin coatings and other topics, most helpful was his mention of a report by the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association (GEIA) on Tin Whisker Risk Mitigation. This standard, GEiA-STD-0005-2 discusses mitigation details thoroughly. Not only has the knowledge of tin whiskers increased, there appears to be more confidence in coatings for mitigation. However, in mission-critical applications, a well thought out, multiple mitigation approach to tin whiskers is still needed. The image below, taken by NASA, shows a tin whisker next to a human hair. Tin whiskers are very thin indeed!
Dr. Ron, I’m responding to your blog regarding tin whiskers. I actually have a failure analysis report I did a couple of years ago in which failure of our product was due to this issue and occurred on a part that came into RoHS compliance only 3 months prior.
I’m not sure that your question of identifying whisker issues in product that proper steps have been taken to mitigate the problem is a constructive one. The fact is that many of the component manufacturers from overseas jumped into compliance without any thought or regard to this issue thereby flooding the industry with components such as plagued my company. We have not had this issue since we’ve specified an alternate finish.
These whiskers are so delicate that most problems disappear when the technician starts to work on the failed unit and the problem never re-appears so it is written off as an anomaly, loose/bad connection and not investigated any further. It was only my own curiosity as to the number of “no problem found” failures of our keypads we had suddenly encountered that caused me to dig deeper and when I looked into the connector I was amazed at the crystal city staring back at me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing after all of these years.
After seeing this problem first hand I became, and am, quite convinced that there were and are people who will be losing life, limb, and property because this forced compliance with its risk was not given proper worldwide attention.
Hi Dr. Lasky, I am a precious metals recycler and would very much appreciate your verifying the validity of an equation that approximates the Karat Value of various alloys of gold based on S.G. which I will call density or “D,” and the Karat Value is “K.” The equation is seems to hold relatively true even when the exact composition of the alloy is unknown, although the percent of error obviously will increase as density decreases. I would also appreciate not only verification but also more specific information on percent of error for densities below about 14 or 15 g/cc. Here is the equation:
K = 0.0089D^3 – 0.550D^2 + 12.5299D – 77.06
Thank you so much for whatever assistance you can provide.
These types of equations can only work for one alloying metal with the gold. This one is only for copper. It is also calibrated in Rhonda’s favor as it reads the karat level about 10% low. I was able to determine this by using the Excel Solder Density worksheet that I developed. If the alloy was gold and lead, a 50% by weight gold (12 karat) would show as 15.7 karat with this equation and Rhonda would lose her shirt.
Also interesting, early copper mining and processing led to the first examples of human induced environmental damage. There are documented sites in the Alps where copper processing by prehistoric peoples has left areas treeless to this day, due to heavy metal contamination.
Mining and smelting were very tough businesses in ancient days. In addition to pollution, many workers died from toxic fumes.
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.
A failure mode is reemerging that has been responsible for the loss of billions of dollars worth of satellites, missiles and other equipment — the culprit is the electrically conductive entities known as ‘tin whiskers’. Now one research group says that tin whiskers may be responsible for the sudden acceleration in Toyota Camry models from the year 2002 and possibly beyond.
Now, University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering or CALCE researchers have found the potential for tin whiskers in the electronic control module or ECM. Circuits Assembly broke the story, quoting the CALCE report as follows:
“The ECM contains surface mount electronic devices connected with tin-lead solder to a multilayer PCB. … Interconnect terminals of the perimeter leaded devices were found to be plated with tin. In addition, tin plating was found on terminal pins of the edge connections. As previously discussed, tin-finished leads can grow tin whiskers which can lead to unintended electrical shorts.”
“We know whiskers can form on tin finished terminals,” said Michael Osterman, senior research scientist and director of the CALCE Electronic Products and System Consortium. said. “In this case, Toyota has tin plating in a rather sensitive area, where the system relies on changes in resistance to provide a signal for acceleration.”
The studied pedals furthermore have been shown to cause shorts known to spur sudden unintended acceleration.
The odds of tin whiskers: 140/million. Someone known to this blogger recently drove a 2010 Camry and noticed subtle but perceptible decelerations that were not led by the driver. Was it tin whiskering? Hard to say, even CALCE’s study figures that the whiskers would only form in 140 cars per million, which is statistically very significant but als makes it statistically unlikely that my friend’s only Camry experience would be on the wrong side of those odds.
It’s also worth noting that the whisker syndrome is probably not limited to Toyotas. Nonetheless, the spotlight has fallen where it has fallen, and tin whiskers pose a serious problem in that warrants attention.
Tin whiskers. Tin whiskers develop — or may develop — on any product type that uses lead-free pure tin coatings. Thus, in greener, lead-free products, tin whiskers can pose a major safety, reliability and potential liability threats to all makers and users of high reliability electronics and associated hardware. The CALCE brain trust concluded that existing approaches are not sufficient to control tin whiskering in high-reliability systems such as automobile electrical systems.
US Secretary of Transportation said Toyota is “all clear” in February. The official blog of the US Secretary of Transportation on February 8, 2011 stated:
NASA engineers pored over more than 280,000 lines of software code looking for potential flaws that could initiate an unintended acceleration incident. Alongside NHTSA, they bombarded vehicles with electromagnetic radiation to see whether it could make electronics systems cause the cars they control to gain speed.
And today, their verdict is in. There is no electronic cause behind dangerous unintended acceleration incidents in Toyotas.
New criticism of the reports by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA Engineering and Safety Center that led the US Transportation Secretary to publicly absolve Toyota of unintended acceleration problems in its vehicles is breathing new life in what the mainstream media had decided was a closed story.
When the US agencies released their reports in February, Sec. Ray LaHood stated that the findings by the NHTSA and NASA proved Toyota’s electronics were not guilty of causing unintended acceleration. “The verdict is in,” LaHood said. “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended, high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.”
Not so fast, said Safety Research & Strategies, which this week went to press with a report condemning the earlier findings for everything from flawed analysis to conflict of interests.
In the report, SRS claims the tin whiskers found in the vehicle samples provided to NASA did in fact reveal a failure mechanism that was ignored in the NHTSA report, yet that mechanism in accelerator pedal sensor circuits can cause resistive shorts that could lead to acceleration.
The report has become a hot topic among a group of printed circuit board reliability experts, who are pointing to the “extremely small sample size” of vehicles used by NASA to perform its investigations. “There are millions of Toyotas on the road today but NASA was able to look at only a handful,” wrote Bob Landman of HRL Laboratories, on the IPC TechNet Listserv. “Despite the small sample size, they found whiskers. The Law of Errors tells you what about this fact? That whiskers are a significant finding.”
Landman noted that in one case, NASA found whiskers in a pedal assembly after a woman who had an incident of sudden acceleration was provided the defective assembly by the dealer that fixed her car. “She learned of the [Department of Transportation] investigation and gave them the assembly, and it found its way to NASA where [researchers] found whiskers shorting the leads of the potentiometer.
Landman also said NASA demonstrated a braking problem under a test track sudden acceleration simulation. “A NASA driver was strapped in, a NASA passenger had two switches, one to cause sudden acceleration at 45 mph and the other to safely turn off the the sudden acceleration so the vehicle could be brought to a stop. What happened? When sudden acceleration was initiated, the throttle was at 100% so there was no vacuum assist and the driver, using both feet on the brake pedal, could not stop the vehicle! It was found that it would take 600 pounds of brake force on the pedal to cause the brake to slow down the vehicle. Clearly, the software does not allow the brake to override the pedal. This is a defective design.”
“Something is rotten in this [NHTSA] report, it seems to me, and SRS found it,” Landman said.
In a recent post, I shared my perspective on the pluses, minuses and neutral aspects of lead-free solder assembly. In the minus category, I listed tin whiskers. A few people commented that tin whiskers were the biggest concern in lead-free assembly. I have trouble understanding this perspective. I’m not saying these folks are wrong, just that I don’t understand their viewpoint.
First, let me say that I appreciate the concern for tin whiskers in mission critical electronics such as military, aerospace and medical. I am also sympathetic to the fact that, even though these types of electronics are exempt from RoHS, they may have to use RoHS compliant products because non-RoHS compliant products may not be available.
When I discuss the topic of tin whiskers, people will point me to NASA’s tin whisker failures website . However, when one goes to the site, there are only about twenty tin whisker fails referenced, many due to bright tin plate. Bright tin plate should never be used in mission critical electronics as it is virtually assured of producing tin whiskers. In addition, many of the articles referenced do not talk about tin whisker fails. Few if any fails are discussed relevant to RoHS (i.e. almost all fails discussed are prior to July 2006.)
I do not want to minimize the significance of tin whisker fails, some of them cost 100s of millions of dollars (e.g., satellite failures). In addition, there have been a few papers that have discussed the formation of tin whiskers even if mitigation techniques are used. Tin whiskers clearly can cause problems, but do not appear to be common, especially if mitigation techniques are used.
So here is my question, who knows of any verified tin whisker fails when tin whisker mitigation techniques were used? Tin whisker mitigation techniques typically use 2% bismuth or antimony in the tin, assure that the tin has a matte finish and use a nickel strike plating between the copper and the tin to minimize copper diffusion into the tin.
Surely if tin whiskers are a major concern, there should be many fails in the over $3 trillion worth of RoHS compliant electronics manufactured since July 2006.
A failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA), is a procedure in product development and operations management for analysis of potential failure modes within a system for classification by the severity and likelihood of the failures. A successful FMEA activity helps a team to identify potential failure modes based on past experience with similar products or processes, enabling the team to design those failures out of the system with the minimum of effort and resource expenditure, thereby reducing development time and costs. It is widely used in manufacturing industries in various phases of the product life cycle and is now increasingly finding use in the service industry.
RPN is an important part of FMEA. It is the product of three numbers that range from 1 to 10. The first number is the severity (S) of a possible fail. A “10” would be given if the failure injured someone, “7” would be assigned if the failure caused a high degree of customer dissatisfaction, whereas a “2” would be given if the failure has only minor negative effects.
The second number is occurrence (O) of a fail. The highest rating is a “10,” which would be a failure every day (reminds me of Windows ME!) or one fail in 3 events, whereas a “7” would be a failure every month or one in 100 events. A “2” is a six sigma fail rate.
The last number is detection (D) of a potential fail. A”10” would suggest that the detection of a potential fail is either not performed or not possible. A “7” is a manual detection approach that may not be reliable, whereas a “2” is 100% effective potential failure inspection.
So obviously a product with a RPN of 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000 is a disaster, its failure is dangerous, frequent and incapable of being detected beforehand. Industry rules of thumb suggest that and RPN of 200 needs to be addressed and an RPN of 75 is usually considered acceptable.
Let’s look at a “ball park” RPN for tin whiskers. We will assume the application is a critical IC in a PC. Let’s assume that a severity rating of “S” of 8 (failure renders the unit unfit for use) is reasonable. TW are hard to inspect for future fails, so detection, “D,” could be as high as a 10. At this point we are at 8 times 10 equals 80 for both. A bad start.
Occurrence (“O”) for TW failure modes is dramatically different. When trying to assess the occurrence of TW fails, one is often directed to NASA’s web page . Many reference this web site that lists a little more than a score of TW fails. What escapes me is that people don’t seem to appreciate the rarity of less than 100 fails in decades of data collection. Surely TW fails are not common. I could find no report of a failure of a RoHS compliant product anywhere on the internet. So it would be hard to rate “O” any higher than a “2.” I suspect that the reason few TW fails have apparently occurred is due to TW mitigation techniques that are widely practiced.
I would expect that “modern” process defects like the head-in-pillow or graping defects could have a much higher RPN than TW, if assembled without proper process controls and materials. However, there is little need to worry about these defects either, if you use the right solder paste and practice some assembly process precautions.
After my recent post on the fact that no data link tin whiskers to the Toyota sudden acceleration issues, there continue to be more posts saying things like “Tin Whiskers Implicated in Unintended Acceleration Problems.”
Many of these posts link back to the earlier TechEye post. The basis for all of the posts is a paper written by EurIng Keith Armstrong titled, “Toyota ‘Sticking Pedals’ Recall is a Smokescreen,” and subtitled, “Their sudden unintended acceleration problem is caused by electronics either due to EMI, lead-free soldering or software ‘bugs.’ ” It does not appear that Armstrong’s paper was sponsored or refereed.
Since it appears that this entire wave of reporting implicating tin whiskers, in this important issue, emanates from Armstrong’s paper, it is helpful to quote his entire comments on tin whiskers
9.0 Lead-free soldering:
In recent years, various countries and trade blocs (including the European Union) have banned the use of lead on electrical solder, on the basis that lead going into landfill when electrical and electronic products are disposed of is bad for the environment, and hence for people.
But many accuse them of being shortsighted -– lead has been added to solder in quite large amounts for many decades because it made the other main constituent, tin, behave much better, considerably improving reliability.
Now that lead has been removed from solder, which is now mainly tin (with a little silver and copper added) all sorts of new possibilities arise for short-circuits and open-circuits, and intermittent shorts and opens, mainly on printed circuit boards (PCBs) and mainly associated with small-footprint integrated circuits (ICs), especially ball-grid arrays (BGAs).
Its really just another cause of intermittent or fixed short-or-open circuits in electronic PCBs and modules – but one that would not have been any problem until a few years ago, and so could have caught Toyota by surprise.
John R Barnes has created a monumentally huge library of references to the problems of lead-free soldering, especially tin whiskering, see www.dbicorporation.com/rohsbib.htm. Prepare to be totally overwhelmed!
Removing lead from solder has the following effects:
9.1 Tin whiskers
These will grow out of soldered joints and can contact other conductors, causing short-circuits between PCB copper traces and the pins of connectors. They are often no longer than 0.5mm (about 1/50th of an inch) but can grow to 1mm (about 1/24th of an inch) or longer, especially in damp conditions.
Even at 1/50th of an inch they can short between the pins on a modern integrated circuit (IC). And the process of removing the PCB for inspection can brush them off, so you never find them.
And if you didn’t accidentally brush them off, they are so thin they are very hard to see – you need a powerful microscope. They are as fine as the finest spider-web threads, yet can carry sufficient current to short-out the electronics. You won’t see them unless you are looking for them.
Being so thin, they can wave around in the breeze and/or due to shocks, vibration and acceleration, causing intermittent short-circuits.
The iNEMI organization has published guidelines (www.inemi.org) on how to ensure that tin whiskers don’t grow too long, but I don’t know to what extent these are followed by suppliers of electronics to the car industry in general, or Toyota in particular.
(Photo courtesy NASA)
Note that, in this paper, there are no data or any evidence regarding tin whiskers discussed from investigating any of the vehicles in question. All of this paper is opinion. In addition, the title of Armstrong’s paper leaves no room for any other cause: it has to be electronics or software. This position is very strong indeed for having no supporting data.
More recently Bob Landman added these comments to the tin whisker discussion: “The increased use of electronics in automobiles when mixed with RoHS can make for a deadly cocktail. We don’t know what the causative agent [in regard to the Toyota recalls] was, but I have heard recently of new autos showing up at dealers that will not start. That cause has been linked to tin whiskers.”
Bob heard this. There is no report and no data. Until Bob gives us a reference for some analysis and data, his comments are little more than hearsay. I searched the web in vain to find information related to Bob’s quote. In addition this comment is a little surprising, tin whiskers are usually associated with a certain amount of aging, hence not usually found in new products.
That tin whiskers exist and cause failures is irrefutable. NASA has an excellent website related to tin whiskers and failures caused by them. However, the total number of tin whisker fails reported is less than 100. Many other types of electronic failure modes would appear to be much more common.
My purpose of writing this post is not to suggest that tin whiskers are not a concern in lead-free electronics. However, it is a fundamental principle in engineering and science to only make pronouncements on how something failed, when they can be supported with data. No data support implicating tin whiskers in the Toyota incidents. It is also troubling how readily many people referenced the work of Armstrong without apparently reading what he said and checking his sources and lack of data.