Oct 8, 2007

tin whiskers, lead, and you

If you're like me, you see the phrase "tin whiskers" and think, "So that's why I go through so many razor blades."

Tin whiskers, it turns out, are an object lesson in misapplied environmental fervor.
Some companies say the EU rules threaten the reliability of their products, exposing them to unknown risks and possibly threatening people's safety.

But EU officials say the regulations banning lead, cadmium, mercury and three other hazardous substances are needed to protect people and the environment.

They also note that many types of electronics are exempt from the law, including military and other national security equipment, medical devices, and servers, data storage computers and telecommunications gear that use leaded solders.

Exemptions are also granted when alternatives to the hazardous materials don't exist yet, or because the substances can't be replaced without jeopardizing safety.

Still, even some companies with exemptions say it's getting harder to buy the leaded parts. They worry about the increased risk of pure-tin parts, the culprit behind the most devastating tin-whisker-related failures.

"Over time (the failures) are just going to get worse and worse and worse," said Jim McElroy, executive director of International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative, or iNEMI, a group of big electronics makers, government agencies and other parties active in tin whisker research.

"Even if the military is exempt forever, they will be forced to convert because they can't get the components they want," he said. "And that will eventually happen across the board."
Tin whiskers have been blamed for satellite failures, false alarms in nuclear plants, and a raft of other electronic misfortunes. We can only hope that engineers, in their scramble to find a replacement, can scare up something as effective as good ol' plumbum.

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