Solder (//, // or in North America //) is a fusible metal alloy used to create a permanent bond between metal workpieces. Solder is melted in order to adhere to and connect the pieces after cooling, which requires that an alloy suitable for use as solder have a lower melting point than the pieces being joined. The solder should also be resistant to oxidative and corrosive effects that would degrade the joint over time. Solder used in making electrical connections also needs to have favorable electrical characteristics.
Soft solder typically has a melting point range of 90 to 450 °C (190 to 840 °F; 360 to 720 K), and is commonly used in electronics, plumbing, and sheet metal work. Alloys that melt between 180 and 190 °C (360 and 370 °F; 450 and 460 K) are the most commonly used. Soldering performed using alloys with a melting point above 450 °C (840 °F; 720 K) is called "hard soldering", "silver soldering", or brazing.
In specific proportions, some alloys are eutectic — that is, the alloy's melting point is the lowest possible for a mixture of those components, and coincides with the freezing point. Non-eutectic alloys can have markedly different solidus and liquidus temperatures, as they have distinct liquid and solid transitions. Non-eutectic mixtures often exist as a paste of solid particles in a melted matrix of the lower-melting phase as they approach high enough temperatures. In electrical work, if the joint is disturbed while in this "pasty" state before it fully solidifies, a poor electrical connection may result; use of eutectic solder reduces this problem. The pasty state of a non-eutectic solder can be exploited in plumbing, as it allows molding of the solder during cooling, e.g. for ensuring watertight joint of pipes, resulting in a so-called "wiped joint".
For electrical and electronics work, solder wire is available in a range of thicknesses for hand-soldering (manual soldering is performed using a soldering iron or soldering gun), and with cores containing flux. It is also available as a room temperature paste, as a preformed foil shaped to match the workpiece which may be more suited for mechanized mass-production, or in small "tabs" that can be wrapped around the joint and melted with a flame where an iron isn't usable or available, as for instance in field repairs. Alloys of lead and tin were commonly used in the past and are still available; they are particularly convenient for hand-soldering. Lead-free solders have been increasing in use due to regulatory requirements plus the health and environmental benefits of avoiding lead-based electronic components. They are almost exclusively used today in consumer electronics.
Plumbers often use bars of solder, much thicker than the wire used for electrical applications, and apply flux separately; many plumbing-suitable soldering fluxes are too corrosive (or conductive) to be used in electrical or electronic work. Jewelers often use solder in thin sheets, which they cut into snippets.
Tin-lead (Sn-Pb) solders, also called soft solders, are commercially available with tin concentrations between 5% and 70% by weight. The greater the tin concentration, the greater the solder’s tensile and shear strengths. Historically, lead has been widely believed to mitigate the formation of tin whiskers, though the precise mechanism for this is unknown. Today, many techniques are used to mitigate the problem, including changes to the annealing process (heating and cooling), addition of elements like copper and nickel, and the application of conformal coatings. Alloys commonly used for electrical soldering are 60/40 Sn-Pb, which melts at 188 °C (370 °F), and 63/37 Sn-Pb used principally in electrical/electronic work. This mixture is a eutectic alloy of these metals, which:
In the United States, since 1974, lead is prohibited in solder and flux in plumbing applications for drinking water use, per the Safe Drinking Water Act. Historically, a higher proportion of lead was used, commonly 50/50. This had the advantage of making the alloy solidify more slowly. With the pipes being physically fitted together before soldering, the solder could be wiped over the joint to ensure water tightness. Although lead water pipes were displaced by copper when the significance of lead poisoning began to be fully appreciated, lead solder was still used until the 1980s because it was thought that the amount of lead that could leach into water from the solder was negligible from a properly soldered joint. The electrochemical couple of copper and lead promotes corrosion of the lead and tin. Tin, however, is protected by insoluble oxide. Since even small amounts of lead have been found detrimental to health as a potent neurotoxin, lead in plumbing solder was replaced by silver (food-grade applications) or antimony, with copper often added, and the proportion of tin was increased (see Lead-free solder.)
The addition of tin—more expensive than lead—improves wetting properties of the alloy; lead itself has poor wetting characteristics. High-tin tin-lead alloys have limited use as the workability range can be provided by a cheaper high-lead alloy.
Lead-tin solders readily dissolve gold plating and form brittle intermetallics. 60/40 Sn-Pb solder oxidizes on the surface, forming a complex 4-layer structure: tin(IV) oxide on the surface, below it a layer of tin(II) oxide with finely dispersed lead, followed by a layer of tin(II) oxide with finely dispersed tin and lead, and the solder alloy itself underneath.
Lead, and to some degree tin, as used in solder contains small but significant amounts of radioisotope impurities. Radioisotopes undergoing alpha decay are a concern due to their tendency to cause soft errors. Polonium-210 is especially troublesome; lead-210 beta decays to bismuth-210 which then beta decays to polonium-210, an intense emitter of alpha particles. Uranium-238 and thorium-232 are other significant contaminants of alloys of lead.
The European Union Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive and Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive were adopted in early 2003 and came into effect on July 1, 2006, restricting the inclusion of lead in most consumer electronics sold in the EU, and having a broad effect on consumer electronics sold worldwide. In the US, manufacturers may receive tax benefits by reducing the use of lead-based solder. Lead-free solders in commercial use may contain tin, copper, silver, bismuth, indium, zinc, antimony, and traces of other metals. Most lead-free replacements for conventional 60/40 and 63/37 Sn-Pb solder have melting points from 50 to 200 °C higher, though there are also solders with much lower melting points. Lead-free solder typically requires around 2% flux by mass for adequate wetting ability.
When lead-free solder is used in wave soldering, a slightly modified solder pot may be desirable (e.g. titanium liners or impellers) to reduce maintenance cost due to increased tin-scavenging of high-tin solder.
Lead-free solder may be less desirable for critical applications, such as aerospace and medical projects, because its properties are less thoroughly known.
Tin-silver-copper (Sn-Ag-Cu, or SAC) solders are used by two-thirds of Japanese manufacturers for reflow and wave soldering, and by about 75% of companies for hand soldering. The widespread use of this popular lead-free solder alloy family is based on the reduced melting point of the Sn-Ag-Cu ternary eutectic behavior (217 °C, 423 °F), which is below the 22/78 Sn-Ag (wt.%) eutectic of 221 °C (430 °F) and the 59/41 Sn-Cu eutectic of 227 °C (441 °F). The ternary eutectic behavior of Sn-Ag-Cu and its application for electronics assembly was discovered (and patented) by a team of researchers from Ames Laboratory, Iowa State University, and from Sandia National Laboratories-Albuquerque.
Much recent research has focused on the addition of a fourth element to Sn-Ag-Cu solder, in order to provide compatibility for the reduced cooling rate of solder sphere reflow for assembly of ball grid arrays. Examples of these four-element compositions are 18/64/14/4 tin-silver-copper-zinc (Sn-Ag-Cu-Zn) (melting range 217–220 °C) and 18/64/16/2 tin-silver-copper-manganese (Sn-Ag-Cu-Mn; melting range of 211–215 °C).
Tin-based solders readily dissolve gold, forming brittle intermetallic joins; for Sn-Pb alloys the critical concentration of gold to embrittle the joint is about 4%. Indium-rich solders (usually indium-lead) are more suitable for soldering thicker gold layer as the dissolution rate of gold in indium is much slower. Tin-rich solders also readily dissolve silver; for soldering silver metallization or surfaces, alloys with addition of silvers are suitable; tin-free alloys are also a choice, though their wettability is poorer. If the soldering time is long enough to form the intermetallics, the tin surface of a joint soldered to gold is very dull.
Hard solders are used for brazing, and melt at higher temperatures. Alloys of copper with either zinc or silver are the most common.
In silversmithing or jewelry making, special hard solders are used that will pass assay. They contain a high proportion of the metal being soldered and lead is not used in these alloys. These solders vary in hardness, designated as "enameling", "hard", "medium" and "easy". Enameling solder has a high melting point, close to that of the material itself, to prevent the joint desoldering during firing in the enameling process. The remaining solder types are used in decreasing order of hardness during the process of making an item, to prevent a previously soldered seam or joint desoldering while additional sites are soldered. Easy solder is also often used for repair work for the same reason. Flux is also used to prevent joints from desoldering.
Silver solder is also used in manufacturing to join metal parts that cannot be welded. The alloys used for these purposes contain a high proportion of silver (up to 40%), and may also contain cadmium.
Different elements serve different roles in the solder alloy:
Impurities usually enter the solder reservoir by dissolving the metals present in the assemblies being soldered. Dissolving of process equipment is not common as the materials are usually chosen to be insoluble in solder.
Board finishes vs wave soldering bath impurities buildup:
Flux is a reducing agent designed to help reduce (return oxidized metals to their metallic state) metal oxides at the points of contact to improve the electrical connection and mechanical strength. The two principal types of flux are acid flux (sometimes called "active flux"), containing strong acids, used for metal mending and plumbing, and rosin flux (sometimes called "passive flux"), used in electronics. Rosin flux comes in a variety of "activities", corresponding roughly to the speed and effectiveness of the organic acid components of the rosin in dissolving metallic surface oxides, and consequently the corrosiveness of the flux residue.
Due to concerns over atmospheric pollution and hazardous waste disposal, the electronics industry has been gradually shifting from rosin flux to water-soluble flux, which can be removed with deionized water and detergent, instead of hydrocarbon solvents. Water soluble fluxes are generally more conductive than traditionally used electrical / electronic fluxes and so have more potential for electrically interacting with a circuit; in general it is important to remove their traces after soldering. Some rosin type flux traces likewise should be removed, and for the same reason.
In contrast to using traditional bars or coiled wires of all-metal solder and manually applying flux to the parts being joined, much hand soldering since the mid-20th century has used flux-core solder. This is manufactured as a coiled wire of solder, with one or more continuous bodies of inorganic acid or rosin flux embedded lengthwise inside it. As the solder melts onto the joint, it frees the flux and releases that on it as well.
The solidifying behavior depends on the alloy composition. Pure metals solidify at a certain temperature, forming crystals of one phase. Eutectic alloys also solidify at a single temperature, all components precipitating simultaneously in so-called coupled growth. Non-eutectic compositions on cooling start to first precipitate the non-eutectic phase; dendrites when it is a metal, large crystals when it is an intermetallic compound. Such a mixture of solid particles in a molten eutectic is referred to as a mushy state. Even a relatively small proportion of solids in the liquid can dramatically lower its fluidity.
The temperature of total solidification is the solidus of the alloy, the temperature at which all components are molten is the liquidus.
The mushy state is desired where a degree of plasticity is beneficial for creating the joint, allowing filling larger gaps or being wiped over the joint (e.g. when soldering pipes). In hand soldering of electronics it may be detrimental as the joint may appear solidified while it is not yet. Premature handling of such joint then disrupts its internal structure and leads to compromised mechanical integrity.
Many different intermetallic compounds are formed during solidifying of solders and during their reactions with the soldered surfaces. The intermetallics form distinct phases, usually as inclusions in a ductile solid solution matrix, but also can form the matrix itself with metal inclusions or form crystalline matter with different intermetallics. Intermetallics are often hard and brittle. Finely distributed intermetallics in a ductile matrix yield a hard alloy while coarse structure gives a softer alloy. A range of intermetallics often forms between the metal and the solder, with increasing proportion of the metal; e.g. forming a structure of Cu−Cu
5−Sn. Layers of intermetallics can form between the solder and the soldered material. These layers may cause mechanical reliability weakening and brittleness, increased electrical resistance, or electromigration and formation of voids. The gold-tin intermetallics layer is responsible for poor mechanical reliability of tin-soldered gold-plated surfaces where the gold plating did not completely dissolve in the solder.
Two processes play a role in a solder joint formation: interaction between the substrate and molten solder, and solid-state growth of intermetallic compounds. The base metal dissolves in the molten solder in an amount depending on its solubility in the solder. The active constituent of the solder reacts with the base metal with a rate dependent on the solubility of the active constituents in the base metal. The solid-state reactions are more complex – the formation of intermetallics can be inhibited by changing the composition of the base metal or the solder alloy, or by using a suitable barrier layer to inhibit diffusion of the metals.
Some example interactions include:
3In, NiIn Ni
5Sn, AuSn AuSn
2, PdSn, PdSn
2In, PdIn, Pd
2Sn, PtSn, Pt
3Pb, PtPb PtPb
A preform is a pre-made shape of solder specially designed for the application where it is to be used. Many methods are used to manufacture the solder preform, stamping being the most common. The solder preform may include the solder flux needed for the soldering process. This can be an internal flux, inside the solder preform, or external, with the solder preform coated.
Glass solder is used to join glasses to other glasses, ceramics, metals, semiconductors, mica, and other materials, in a process called glass frit bonding. The glass solder has to flow and wet the soldered surfaces well below the temperature where deformation or degradation of either of the joined materials or nearby structures (e.g., metallization layers on chips or ceramic substrates) occurs. The usual temperature of achieving flowing and wetting is between 450 and 550 °C (840 and 1,020 °F).
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