Parylene Coating Blog by Diamond-MT

Updates on Conformal Coating and Tin Whiskers

Posted by Sean Horn on Fri, Oct 28, 2016 @ 07:30 AM

            Not completely understood, electrically conductive tin whiskers are crystalline structures between 1-2 millimeters (mm) that can grow from surfaces where tin is used as a final finish; surfaces finished with electroplated tin are particularly susceptible to whisker growth.  Although their occurrence was originally documented during the 1940s, no real solution has yet been devised to prevent their development, which may reach 10 mm in some cases.  This is unfortunate because tin whiskers have the capacity for generating arcing and short circuits between electrical elements of printed circuit boards (PCBs) and related electronic equipment.    

Tin Whiskers:  Their Origin and Impact

Physically, tin whiskers result from the spontaneous growth of tiny, filiform hairs or tendrils upon tin surfaces.  These structures can create electrical paths, often within the presence of compressive stress during component operation.  Because they usually develop in a functional environment that supports short circuits or arcing, tin whiskers don't need to be airborne to damage electronics.  Among other problems, the four main risks with tin whiskers are:

  • Stable short circuits in low voltage, high impedance circuits. 
  • Transient short circuits may develop where tin whiskers span tightly-spaced circuit elements maintained at different electrical potentials.
  • Metal vapor arcs result when a whisker-short occurs in a high-current/voltage environment. They are perhaps the most destructive of electronic system failures attributed to tin whiskers.
  • Contamination from debris resulting from tin whisker presence can interfere with component performance.

Other adverse consequences of tin whiskers include:

  • Behaving like miniature antennas in fast digital circuits or at frequencies above 6 GHz, generating a negative impact on circuit impedance and stimulating reflections.
  • Causing failures in relays, a source of deep concern for relay-functions as important as those for nuclear power facilities.
  • In outer space (or any vacuum), tin whiskers can short circuit high-power components, ionizing and potentially conducting hundreds of amperes of current, exponentially increasing the short circuit’s damage.
  • Tin whiskers have caused malfunction and recall of medical pacemakers.
  • Whiskers located in computer disk drives can break, resulting in bearing failures or head crashes.

Conformal Coatings Mitigate the Effects of Tin Whiskers

Selecting a tin whiskers’ mitigation strategy is important; because the source of their growth is unknown, they cannot be entirely eliminated.  Although ceramic coatings have proven successful, conformal films made from polymeric compounds such as vapor-deposited parylene, or wet application acrylic and urethane, deflect whiskers away from the coating surface.  For instance, studies conducted by NASA seeking tin whisker control for space craft have shown urethane conformal coatings successfully mitigate tin whisker growth.   In addition, some acrylic wet coatings, such as HumiSeal 1B31, also mitigate tin whisker’s problems.  For various reasons, other conformal coatings -- epoxy, and silicone – are less effective minimizing the development of tin whiskers and their impact on PCB performance.

Perhaps the most effective conformal coating for alleviation of tin whisker related issues is parylene.   Deposited in gaseous form, through a chemical vapor deposition (CVD) process, parylene seeps deep into substrate surfaces, penetrating spaces as minute as 0.01mm.  In doing so, it forms a pinhole-free protective film that is ultra-thin but exceptionally durable.  Chemically inert and of high tensile strength, parylene retains its stability throughout a wide range of temperatures.  Because it can be applied at room temperature, parylene application is stress-free.  These properties combine to support superior mitigation of tin whiskers.

. However they are applied, conformal coatings create a physical barrier over electronic components that stops tin whisker damage.  Conformal coatings:

  • Form a protective film that safeguards assembly circuitry and components, physically separating them from each other.
  • Substantially diminish tin whiskers bridging between the separated components.
  • Lower whiskers’ capacity to generate arcing and shorts.

Conclusion

Tin whiskers can generate arcing and short circuits leading to systemic failures in PCBs and similar electrical assemblies, significantly damaging and otherwise altering their performance expectations.  Vital devices, equipment and facilities such as pacemakers, power plants, and even satellites have had their function diminished by the presence of tin whiskers.  Determining methods for preventing or slowing tin whisker growth is difficult because:

  • outside of some evidence they are the product of mechanically- and thermally-induced stresses,
  • the exact mechanism behind their development is not fully understood.

Where they develop, mitigation of tin whiskers is essential to limiting their impact on assembly performance.  Conformal compound coatings such as parylene, and to a lesser extent acrylic and urethane, can stop tin whiskers from;

  • penetrating an applied protective barrier,
  • bridging electrical components and
  • creating arcing or a short.

While it is impossible at the moment to completely prevent the occurrence of tin whiskers, their mitigation with conformal coatings will dramatically limit whisker growth and equipment damage.  Vapor-deposited parylene and wet coatings such as acrylic and urethane, provide generally good tin whisker defense.  Other traditional wet conformal coating materials such as epoxy and silicone are mostly ineffective as protection against the development and effect of tin whiskers.   

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Tags: parylene, conformal coating, tin whiskers, tin whisker mitigation

Parylene and Tin Whiskers

Posted by Sean Horn on Tue, Nov 26, 2013 @ 08:50 AM

Tin whiskers have long been a frustrating occurrence for those manufacturing and using electronic devices. First discovered in the 1940s, the whiskering of metal has been the cause of serious problems including the damaging of vital and difficult to replace equipment. Finding ways to prevent or slow the growth of whiskers has been a focus of engineers and scientists for quite some time.

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Tags: parylene, tin whiskers, tin whisker mitigation

Silicone vs. Urethane Conformal Coating

Posted by Sean Horn on Fri, Oct 12, 2012 @ 11:07 AM

Silicone and urethane are two of the most popular conformal coating types.  They are widely used for a variety of their properties, but which is a better coating?  While this ultimately depends on your application, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of each.

Silicone Conformal Coating

Benefits

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Tags: conformal coating, silicone conformal coating, tin whisker mitigation, urethane conformal coating, type sr conformal coating, Humiseal 1A33, type ur conformal coating, conformal coating consultation

Will HumiSeal 1B31 mitigate tin whiskers?

Posted by Sean Horn on Tue, Sep 04, 2012 @ 01:20 PM

Tin whiskers are electrically conductive, crystalline structures of tin that sometimes grow from surfaces where tin (especially electroplated tin) is used as a final finish.  They typically grow from lengths of 1-2 millimeters (mm) but have been observed to lengths in excess of 10 mm.  They are a serious issue in the electronics world because they have been known to cause short circuits between circuit elements. 

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Tags: acrylic conformal coating, conformal coating, conformal coatings, HumiSeal 1B31, tin whiskers, tin whisker mitigation, urethane conformal coating

When to Use Urethane Conformal Coating

Posted by Sean Horn on Tue, May 08, 2012 @ 06:46 AM

Urethane conformal coatings are an excellent choice to use for many conformal coatingprojects.  Because of their resistance to chemical solvents, usefulness at mitigating tin whiskers, and overall hardness, they are a very popular conformal coating choice.
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Tags: parylene conformal coating, conformal coating, conformal coatings, tin whiskers, tin whisker mitigation, urethane conformal coating, urethane resin

Tin Whisker Mitigation and Conformal Coating

Posted by Sean Horn on Tue, Apr 10, 2012 @ 09:35 AM

 WHAT ARE TIN WHISKERS

 Tin whiskers are electrically conductive, crystalline structures of tin that sometimes grow from surfaces where tin (especially electroplated tin) is used as a final finish.  Tin whiskers typically grow from lengths of 1-2 millimeters (mm) but have been observed to lengths in excess of 10 mm.  Electronic system failures have been attributed to short circuits caused by tin whiskers that bridge closely-spaced circuit elements maintained at different electrical potentials.

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Tags: Diamond-MT, conformal coating, tin whiskers, tin whisker mitigation, urethane resin