Tin Whiskers Out With The Claws, Bricking Satellites and Pacemakers

There's something sprouting in every electronic device that you own, and it's not in the oh-happy-garden-let's-pick-the-fruit kind of way. In fact, this little something could very well end up bricking your device. They are called tin whiskers, and they pop up without warning from tin solder and finishes deep inside electronics.

While scientists debate their cause, they agree on one thing: small amounts of lead mixed with the tin prevent the whiskers from forming. Lead, however, is a serious health concern, and last year Europeans barred the toxic metal from most electronics. Similar measures are being considered or are already in place in other countries, including Japan, China, South Korea, Argentina, Australia and the United States. Some have likened the situation to a Y2K sort of scenario; since they take years to develop, you might just finishing paying off that HDTV before it goes belly-up.

Clearly, the whiskers are more than a nuisance. In the 1980s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalled some pacemakers because of a high failure rate caused by tin whiskers. The whiskers took out a satellite in 1999, causing 40 million pagers to stop working and halting ATMs nationwide. Seven nuclear power plants have been temporarily shut down after tin whiskers triggered false alarms and NASA, who has their own database of whisker-related failures, discovered millions of tin whiskers in an electronic box that controls the space shuttle Endeavour's engine.

Many types of electronics are exempt from the law (military, medical devices, etc.), and exemptions are also granted when alternatives to the hazardous materials don't exist yet. But it's getting harder to buy the leaded parts as manufacturers react to the environmental legislation. It's a tough measure; was the EU too hasty? :: Yahoo

Tags: Nasa


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