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Getting the lead out
August 30, 2004
Rachel Ross, Toronto Star

There's a transformation underway in consumer electronics, a greening of the industry led by hard-hitting legislation. Europe wants to get the lead out. The rest of the world is coming along for the ride.

In 2006, the European Union's Restrictions of the use of certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) legislation will kick in, banning the use of six toxins from most electronics. Many manufacturers have already eliminated some of the toxins targeted by the restrictions, such as certain kinds of flame-retardants.

Lead, however, hasn't been so easy to replace.

After years of research and development into lead-free alternatives for electronics, the industry is finally making the transition to so-called "greener" choices.

Whether these new unleaded circuit boards will be as reliable as the old variety still isn't clear. The real impact on the environment is uncertain. Consumers will pick up the tab, regardless.

"This affects every single electrical component worldwide," said Dan Shea, chief technology officer of the Toronto-based electronics giant Celestica Inc. "The ramifications are just so large."

A cheap, reliable metal, lead has been a fundamental part of circuit boards for decades. It's the electrically-conductive glue that holds everything together. Unfortunately, it's also toxic. When circuit boards wind up in a landfill the lead can seep into soil and water making it poisonous.

Most of the lead in a circuit board is in the solder: the silver stuff that connects many of the tiny parts inside any digital device, be it a cellphone, remote control, laptop or microwave oven. Microchips, resistors and capacitors are usually joined together using this easy-to-melt mix of tin and lead. A small amount of hot, liquid solder is applied at the juncture between the computer's circuit board and the component. As the solder cools, it hardens, fastening the part to the circuit board and forming an electrical connection between the two.

Despite its toxicity, tin-lead solder has been the usual choice for consumer electronics because it's relatively inexpensive and very reliable. Finding a good alternative has been a challenge.

The National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative Inc. (NEMI), a U.S. industry consortium, began testing lead-free solders in 1999. After much testing and analysis, the consortium eventually recommended a lead-free solder made of tin, silver and copper, in specific ratios.

"That alloy in a landfill should not present any hazards," said Bob Pfahl, vice-president of the consortium's operations.

This solder tested well, according to the manufacturers' consortium. It seemed to be reliable, even if the solder had to be reheated multiple times to replace a component. It also performed well in stress tests, designed to see how well the solder stood up to pressure.

But, Shea notes, tin-copper-silver solder is not a "drop-in replacement" for the leaded variety.

"The tin-copper-silver has a higher melting temperature," says Shea. "Everything has to be heated up 30 degrees Celsius higher."

Some parts weren't designed for that higher temperature, however, and have to be re-designed for unleaded solder.

One of the big problems is with the internal moisture level of the components. Shea said the higher the soldering temperature the faster some parts dry out; without the correct moisture level the part won't work.

There are also some concerns about the reliability of the lead-free solder on a thick circuit board. In some cases, new production processes have to be implemented.

The tin-silver-copper solder the U.S. industry consortium recommends has a tendency to grow whiskers, too: thin sticks of tin that can slowly spread across from one part of a circuit board to another. Ultimately, a whisker can form an unnecessary electrical connection on the board and short out the whole thing.

Hewlett-Packard is one of several companies that have been actively involved in the manufacturing consortium's effort to find a solution to tin whiskering.

"Tin whiskering is one of the most important technology questions in the whole transition," said Judy Glazer, HP's director of strategic process development. "It is driven not just by the solder alloy that we select. It's also driven by the materials that our component suppliers provide."

Consortium members are still debating the exact causes of these whiskers. They are, consequently, still looking for solutions and running tests.

All that research, testing and implementation doesn't come cheap.

A 1997 study by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) estimated that the U.S. material costs of the lead-free transition would be between $140 million and $900 million (U.S.). Total supply chain costs would run to tens of billions of dollars more.

"I don't see any choice but the end consumer bearing the cost," Shea said of Celestica. "There's not enough of a margin on electronics to let companies bear the costs."

But he says prices will likely be only "slightly higher."

Duane Napp, the man who headed up the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences study, agrees.

"The costs will be spread across a wide range of products over a couple of years," Napp said.

Technically, the European Union's legislation only covers products made or sold in the European Union. Some Asian countries are considering following suit. China is expected to finalize legislation banning lead in consumer electronics in January 2005.

The Canadian government, however, has yet to address the problem of lead in electronic waste. While Canada does restrict the use of lead in children's toys, there has been no serious discussion over its use in electronics. Ontario doesn't even have a plan for diverting electronic waste from landfills yet.

Fortunately, Canada will benefit from the EU's standards as companies abandon tin-lead solder altogether.

"The European directive is spawning a world-wide transition across the industry," said HP's Judy Glazer, who is responsible for the company's European Union-compliance program.

Like HP, many companies have decided it simply isn't efficient to keep a leaded product line around for countries such as Canada that haven't given electronic waste much thought yet. And the consensus is that such countries will likely draft similar legislation eventually, so why fund two kinds of products in the interim?

Interestingly, HP hasn't yet decided whether the product packaging will indicate the product is lead-free. Glazer said interested parties could always contact the company directly for that information, however.

Waving the flag of environmentalism is good business, say industry analysts. Selling "greener" products in countries without material bans makes a company look pro-active.

"Consumer electronics companies are waving the green flag of environmental friendliness to gain a competitive advantage," wrote publisher Dennis Zogbi in a recent issue of Passive Component Industry, a trade magazine. "The sooner your company gets there, the faster you can claim a stake in this virtual Greenland."

Earlier this month, Celestica issued a news release anointing itself as "the first electronics manufacturing services provider to launch end-to-end green services solution." The company's new "green services" are designed to get original equipment manufacturers in full compliance with the European restrictions, by ensuring that their products are made with compliant parts only. Co-ordinating the supply-chain management aspect of the transition has been even more of a challenge than the technical side, Shea said.

Some components need only minor changes to meet lead-free requirements: the small amount of solder on the terminals — or legs — of the component might just have to be replaced by a lead-free variety, for example. Consequently, some companies aren't changing the part numbers for their lead-free products. Double-checking the lead-free status of each gadget isn't easy. When it comes to electronics, a single gadget might have hundreds of suppliers.

Not all electronics are covered under the EU legislation. Lead in the glass of cathode ray tubes (CRT), for example, is exempted. The electronics used in network infrastructure for telecommunications is also exempted for the time being, until the reliability of lead-free electronics can be better established.

Even without the exemptions, a few people in the industry wonder whether the lead restrictions will really have a significant environmental impact.

Everyone agrees that lead is harmful: lead poisoning can seriously impair a child's nervous system and cognitive development. It is also generally accepted that, if left in a landfill, lead can leech into the environment. Those behind the European rules argue lead in electronic waste is a growing problem that has to be addressed now. More and more products are incorporating circuit boards and the lifespan of many consumer electronics is shrinking.

But some in the industry said circuit boards used in consumer electronics don't contain a lot of lead, when compared to other products. Zogbi said he finds the whole lead ban ridiculous, in fact.

"There is much more lead in the lead-acid batteries used in cars and I see very little legislation going on that's going to effect that," Zogbi said.

Scott O'Connell, Dell's environmental program manager, said lead-free solder wouldn't have been at the top of the company's hit list. He estimates there's only about 10 grams of lead per motherboard.

Dell could have better used the resources sucked up by the European initiative for other environmental projects, he said, such as their ongoing work on energy efficiency or designing products for easier disassembly. O'Connell said he believes there's a "definite link" between reducing the number of screws and adhesives on a product and the recycling of its contents.

But the law's the law and Dell, like most other electronics companies, will comply with the restrictions on the use of hazardous substances. In fact, O'Connell said the company's goal is to ship compliant parts worldwide before the deadline. Glazer said HP's first lead-free products should be available next year.

Some companies, including Motorola, already sell products with lead-free solder today. According to Sony of Canada Ltd., more than 80 per cent of the company's soldering involves the lead-free variety. The company said it is confident of the reliability of these products and has seen no tin whiskering side effects.

"Yes, lead solder is much easier to work with — no question about it," said Frank Maw, president of Motorola. "But over the last couple of years we have found production methods that give us over-all product reliability that matches or exceeds our previous products."

Not everyone is as confident. Representatives from HP, Dell and Kemet said they still consider whiskering an issue.

The National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative Inc. (NEMI), the U.S. industry consortium, for its part hopes to find some helpful solutions to the tin-whisker problem before the European rules go into effect in 2006, so manufacturers have clear guidelines on how to make the most reliable products possible.

"The debate as to whether it's a smart idea is over," said Kemet's Carter Berrios. "The legislation is passed. We have to do it. So now we have to figure out how to do it."

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