When Electronics Get Five O'Clock Shadow
Where were you on May 19, 1998 when the Galaxy 4 communications satellite failed? If you were answering your pager, grabbing some cash at an ATM, or completing a credit card transaction, you were probably in a state of frustration. That's because, miles above the Earth, microscopic tin whiskers formed a conduit between two metal contacts, short-circuiting the satellite's central processor.
Who knew that metal could grow nano-whiskers? I certainly didn't. I have to admit, the thought conjures up images of 1950s "B" science fiction. Actually, engineers have known about the problem since the 1940s, and they solved it by adding a 2 -3% lead solution to the tin plating used in electronic assemblies.
Lead? Guess they didn't know back then that lead's not conducive to healthy neural pathways, especially juvenile ones.
But it's hard to change habits and improve on the technical experience formed over the last 50 years, especially considering that lead worked really well. And the risks involved in implementing new solutions to get the lead out seem to outweigh the benefits of elimininating from the environment the small amounts of the element in question. But electronic gizmos are proliferating at an astonishing rate, and they eventually end up in landfills.
When you talk to technology corporations about developing lead-free electronics, they cite the huge investments involved in satellite circuitry, or even high-end home electronics like HDTV, and admit that they're leery. They fear that near-term solutions to the metal whisker problem might not hold up for the long run, and could unleash a chain of failures of Y2K proportions.
Regulators with considerable muscle, like the European Union, have set their atomic alarm clocks, however, demanding that a solution to metallic five o'clock shadow be in place by July 1, 2006, when lead-laden electronics will be illegal for sale in member countries.
So stay tuned. And if your high-tech shaver fails, blame it on tin whiskers.