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Gold Plating and Embrittlement
What is your opinion regarding gold plating removal to improve soldering? In the past gold plating was thick enough to cause gold embrittlement in solder joints.
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Gold Plating and Embrittlement
What is your opinion regarding gold plating removal to improve soldering? I believe in the past gold plating was thick enough (>50 micro inches) to cause gold embrittlement in solder joints. However today the way gold is applied using vapor deposition (<50 micro inches) there should not be a problem with embrittlement, do you agree?
Expert's Panel Responses
Gold embrittlement occurs at 5 wt.% in the solder joint although the industry usually defaults to 3 wt.%. You can calculate easily the expected wt.% in your joints and  see if it exceeds these values. For ENIG, we do not know of any device features currently in use that approx. these threshold values.
Gerard O'Brien
S T and S Testing and Analysis
Gerald O'Brien is Chairman of ANSI J-STD 003, and Co Chairman of IPC 4-14 Surface Finish Plating Committee. He is a key member of ANSI J-STD 002 and 311 G Committees Expert in Surface finish, Solderability issues and Failure analysis in the PWA, PWB and component fields.
Gold embrittlement can be a significant reliability issue. Most PCB designers are aware of this and careful consideration is made in the design of solder joints. Gold content of solder joints are fixed by design. There is a threshold level for gold which can be calculated. There is a great study on this by Ed Hare PH.D that you can read at www.semlab.com.
Brien Bush
Manufacturing Applications Specialist
Cirtronics Corp.
Mr. Bush has 20 years experience in electronics contract manufacturing. Major areas of expertise include through hole, SMT, wave and selective soldering.
Gold embrittlement in solder joints has always been caused by a percentage ratio the weight of the gold versus the weight of the solder and the going number for the amount of gold through the years was approximately 3% of the total weight of the solder alloy.  

The problem and the reasoning behind changing the criterion in the J-STD-001 Rev F., standard was to address a problem which was experienced by the industry. That problem as defined was the lack of turbulence in the plated though hole during the wave solder operation. At (5) fpm and a board contact width over the wave of (1) inch the board is in the solder for (1) sec, which is quite fast respective of the solder getting flushed out of the plated through holes during the soldering process. This leaves the gold on the lead to be dissolved in only the solder within the plated through hole which can result in a higher percentage of gold than is necessary.  

Secondly if the components are manually soldered, the amount of solder being added to the solder joint or plated through hole, is minimal due to the physical volume of the hole minus the volume of the lead could create a gold rich environment which would be prone to crack propagation within the plated through hole.    

Thirdly, if the components are surface mount component, the amount of solder paste added to the pads is smaller in volume than any of the plated through holes and the ability of the gold to dissolve in that molten solder paste does increase the amount of gold per given volume of solder paste and again the gold dendrites within the solder joint would be the catalyst for the propagation of cracks within the solder joint.  

Therefore to be safe, remove the gold and eliminate the worry about the exact amount of gold on the leads and terminals
Leo Lambert
Vice President, Technical Director
EPTAC Corporation
At EPTAC Corporation, Mr. Lambert oversees content of course offerings, IPC Certification programs and provides customers with expert consultation in electronics manufacturing, including RoHS/WEEE and lead free issues. Leo is also the IPC General Chairman for the Assembly/Joining Process Committee.
Whether there is a risk of embrittlement depends on several variables:
  • Amount of gold expected to be leached (soldered area*gold thickness)
  • Solder volume in the resulting joint
  • Whether or not the solder is from an "infinite source" such as a wave, or from solder paste
  • Whether there is any gold contribution from the PWB finish (ENIG or ENIPIG finish)
Worst case, we can assume that all the gold will be leached (usually an accurate assumption) and that the solder source is finite and equal to the volume of the joint (true for reflow, conservative for wave). If we make these assumptions, I have in fact seen cases where component gold thicknesses below 30 microinches still result in marginal or unacceptable gold levels in the final joint.

Where gold thickness is truly minimized, e.g. below 10 microinches, I have not personally seen specific cases where the gold concentration becomes unacceptable. In the end, each joint configuration is unique and should be analyzed as such.
Fritz Byle
Process Engineer
Fritz's career in electronics manufacturing has included diverse engineering roles including PWB fabrication, thick film print & fire, SMT and wave/selective solder process engineering, and electronics materials development and marketing. Fritz's educational background is in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on materials science. Design of Experiments (DoE) techniques have been an area of independent study. Fritz has published over a dozen papers at various industry conferences.
To the best of my knowledge, gold plating in electronics at the package or assembly level is still not applied via vapor deposition. However, if the process uses immersion technology, then yes gold embrittlement is unlikely.
Dr. Craig D. Hillman
CEO & Managing Partner
DfR Solutions
Dr. Hillman's specialties include best practices in Design for Reliability, strategies for transitioning to Pb-free, supplier qualification, passive component technology and printed board failure mechanisms.
I would not agree that 50 microinches should not be a problem. Especially with Lead-Free. My guess is you are asking because of the new wording in IPC-JSTD-001 that does not allow any gold in a solder joint.

I believe this is mostly being driven by the change to Lead-Free and to a lesser part, miniaturization. Embrittlement can happen with 4 microinches of gold or 0.1 micrometers. In the case of miniaturization, the gold in SnPb solder starts negatively affecting the joint at 5% weight percent of gold in the solder. As the spacing between part leads and board soldering surfaces becomes less, the absolute percentage of gold in the volume of solder goes up. The same is true with surface mount parts. Although these are smaller parts and pads and there is less solder deposited to connect the part to the PCB, the gold percent in solder will usually goes up since, typically, the solder volumes decrease more than the overall gold volumes.

But as I said above, I think the main factor for the change by IPC is because of SAC305 solder. There is a recent study (see below) that states "There appears not to be a threshold between "good" and "bad" (levels of gold on a part)." Basically they are saying that degradation of a SAC305 solder joint is observed with even trace amounts of gold. This same study references similar results from several other independent studies. I have not seen this study done for Sn100C but since the main cause of gold embrittlement is due to the formation of AuSn4, I would guess Sn100C would be just as bad as SAC305 if not worse.

Since we are now in a Lead-Free world, I cannot say that I think 50 microinches would not be a problem.

Recent Study:
Craig Hillman, Nathan Blattau, Joelle Arnold, Thomas Johnston, Stephanie Gulbrandsen, DfR Solutions Beltsville, MD, USA

Julie Silk, Agilent Technologies Santa Rosa, CA

Alex Chiu, Agilent Technologies Penang, Malaysia
Alan Cable
ACE Production Technologies
Alan Cable, the principle owner of ACE production technologies Inc. has over 40 years experience in the electronics manufacturing arena. Alan's expertise is high production manufacturing automation, equipment design and process engineering. For the past 25 years Alan has focused specifically on soldering issues relating to component solderability, lead tinning and selective soldering, owning several companies with this focus.
First I want to clarify that we are only talking about gold-plated component lead and terminations here, and not the PWB surface finish gold plating (such as ENIG and ENEPIG and soft gold for wirebonding) applied to PWB pads. Surface platings such as ENIG, with only about 4 uinches of gold, do not contribute towards embrittlement.  

Second, I want to point out that there are many different types of gold finish on component leads, and many different geometrical configurations of gold-finished terminals, leads, solder cups, etc.,  and many methods of soldering to those leads, all of which are factors in gold embrittlement.

In addition to the different types of gold finish (electroless, electroplated, fused, etc) there are many different types of base metals and barrier platings, including copper base metal with a barrier plate of phosphate bronze, or nickel (alloy 42), or kovar with direct gold electroplate, etc.  

Gold embrittlement is caused by a spectacle called nucleation. All forces in nature want to reach equilibrium, and engineering is nothing more than devising methods of controlling those forces. In fluid dynamics pressurized hot and cold water wants to reach room temperature or the controlling temperature (refrigeration and steam), in electric and electronic circuits electrons and holes want to recombine (electrical power and current), etc. Magnetic fields are another example of forces trying to reach equilibrium.

In metallurgy there are similar reactions between different alloys that lead to galvanization, corrosion, oxidation, etc., and nucleation is nothing more than the gold in a solder joint attempting to achieve equilibrium with the other alloys within that same solder termination.

Nucleation of gold molecules through the solder joint happens even at room temperature, and is a time-variable phenomenon where the gold molecules will travel right through the solder joint to the intermetallic formation of the solder and the copper pad, as well as the solder and the lead or termination. During soldering the gold molecules are readily and immediately dissolved and suspended and are homogenous throughout the solder joint.

After the solder joint is formed, nucleation of the gold begins, and the rate and the concentration of the agglomeration of gold molecules at or near the intermetallic boundary is determined by the amount of gold as a percentage, the geometric formation that can cause the agglomeration to be more concentrated at certain points of the solder joint, and the rate of nucleation as controlled by the basis metals and their barrier plating. When we solder to gold, we don't really solder to the gold itself, but the intermetallic formation is made between the solder alloy and the barrier metal under the gold, or if there is no barrier metal, then directly to the basis metal.

Most typically component leads that are gold plated are actually a basis metal of copper with a barrier metallization of nickel or other barrier plating underneath the gold. The gold is plated over the nickel as a means of providing a coating over the nickel because bare nickel oxidizes almost overnight and becomes unsolderable (molten solder cannot form an intermetallic bond to any oxide layer, hence the use of flux to remove the oxides).  

My own experiences of gold nucleation leading to embrittlement include instances where pre-tinned stranded wires were soldered into gold-plated solder cup terminals using resistance soldering back in the 1960 time frame.  

Yes, I already know that was a long time ago.  

Anyway, these wires were used to make point-to-point terminations. Resistance soldering is done by directing electrical current through the gold cup to melt the solder. The gold thickness of the gold cup terminals was not controlled very well, and some had much more gold than others because at that time there were no good methods of ensuring just the right thickness of gold; we did not have XrF or any of the other more advanced methods of determining gold thickness (or any other plating thickness for that matter).

As a result, it was required (and still is per J-STD-001F) that the gold be removed prior to soldering in order to reduce the gold percentage to less than 3%. However, even with as little as 1% of gold in the solder joint, gold embrittlement can occur. In the wire cups that I mentioned, the actual gold plating was chemically etched and found to be less than 2% by volume, but  due to the cylindrical shape, the gold tended to nucleate between the stranded wire and the inside surface of the cup closest to the wire.

Because the operators tended to insert the wires and route them out and back, nearly all of the gold nucleated to a point near the top 25% of the cup between the stranded wire and the edge of the cup nearest where the wires curved back, and that is where the fractures occurred approximately 95% of the time. The fractures did not start showing up until more than a year after the wires were soldered to the cups. I personally from my own experience feel that the 3% limit is too liberal, that the maximum allowable gold percentage should be closer to 1% or less.

But that is also why the J-STD-001F also has requirements that if you do not want to remove the gold by tinning first, then you are required to show objective evidence that no embrittlement leading to fractures will occur, and by objective evidence that means showing that no embrittlement occurs over a long period of time.

Sample pull-testing or flexing solder terminations immediately after soldering is NOT objective evidence; the time variable and temperature variation over time must also be a part of the evaluation. There are gold embrittlement test procedures in both IPC-TM-650 (a free download from www.ipc.org) as well as ANSI standards.

So to summarize; gold embrittlement in Class 3 (high reliability) solder connections is still a major concern, because even vapor deposition can lead to more than 1 or 2% of gold if not done properly. Better to tin it away than to experience a costly bunch of field failures, or at least perform the required qualification and produce the objective evidence as a minimum.  

In God we trust, all others bring data.  

Good luck with the qualification.
Richard D. Stadem
Advanced Engineer/Scientist
General Dynamics
Richard D. Stadem is an advanced engineer/scientist for General Dynamics and is also a consulting engineer for other companies. He has 38 years of engineering experience having worked for Honeywell, ADC, Pemstar (now Benchmark), Analog Technologies, and General Dynamics.
Soldering gold-plated parts can be problematic as gold is soluble in solder. Solder which contains more than 2-3% gold can become brittle. The joint surface is dull-looking.

Gold reacts with both tin and lead in their liquid state, forming brittle intermetallic. When eutectic 63% tin - 37% lead solder is used, no lead-gold compounds are formed, because gold preferentially reacts with tin, forming the AuSn4 compound. Particles of AuSn4 disperse in the solder matrix, forming preferential cleavage planes, significantly lowering the mechanical strength and therefore reliability of the resulting solder joints.

If the gold layer does not completely dissolve into the solder, then slow intermetallic reactions can proceed in the solid state as the tin and gold atoms cross-migrate. Intermetallic has poor electrical conductivity and low strength. The on-going intermetallic reactions also cause Kirkendall effect, leading to mechanical failure of the joint, similar to the degradation of gold-aluminium bonds known as purple plague. (Kirkendall effect is the motion of the boundary layer between two metals that occurs as a consequence of the difference in diffusion rates of the metal atoms).

It is misconception that Sn62 (with 2%) can be used on Gold Surfaces, Gold dissolving and forming brittle joints is same as SN63, maximum limit of 3% Au will be applicable to Sn62 also to prevent brittle joints.

Silver bearing solder like Sn62 is recommended for soldering where leads are silver plated or end termination of components are Palladium Silver to prevent silver leaching.
KN Murli
Astra Microwave Products, Hyderabad, AP India
Holds Degree in Engineering, started off as Scientist/Engineer in ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) in Quality Assurance of Space hardware Electronics Production. Worked in the area of Parts, Material and Process; DPA, FA and Process Qualification for space and ground hardware. Later moved into Private sector and worked in the area of Quality Management Systems & ISO 9001 certification. Currently hold a position as Head-Quality in RF/Microwave Product manufacturing for Defense and Aerospace segment.
It depends on what the solder alloy is and how much solder is applied.

But in sufficient amounts gold is known to embrittle tin containing solder joints.

 Depending on the reference source, 3-4% by weight of gold in a SnPb solder joint and ~10% by weight of gold in a SAC joint is typically known as enough to cause embrittlement to occur.
Eric Bastow
Senior Technical Support Engineer
Indium Corporation
Eric is an SMTA-certified process engineer (CSMTPE) and has earned his Six Sigma Green Belt from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. He is also a certified IPC-A-600 and 610D Specialist. He has an associate's degree in Engineering Science from the State University of New York and has authored several technical papers and articles.
The embrittlement in solder connections occurs when the weight percentage of gold to solder increase. The alloy of the solder has an effect on this as well. Tin lead is more prone to a sharp increase in brittleness than SAC305. So yes in a general term your thoughts are correct. However solder joint design and pad to solder ratios have to be considered. Aging also plays a role in this embrittlement.

Typically the more solder there is to disperse the gold though the safer the solder connection. When soldering bottom terminated components (BTCs) the gold ration increase not only from some devices having gold pads but also the reduction of the solder volume and the increased voiding that may inhibit the gold distribution.
Karl Seelig
Vice President of Technology
In his 32 years of industry experience, Mr. Seelig has authored over 30 published articles on topics including lead-free assembly, no-clean technology, and process optimization. Karl holds numerous patents, including four for lead-free solder alloys, and was a key developer of no-clean technology.
Reader Comment
It is mentioned that there are gold embrittlement test procedures in both IPC-TM-650 (a free download from www.ipc.org) as well as ANSI standards. Can you provide more details as to what the actual specs are?
Mary Lou Sachenik, Moog, USA
Reader Comment
While it is noted that there is no threshold in strength versus gold content with SAC305 as there is in SnPb, the study by Dr. Hillman clearly shows that the SAC305 consistently shears at higher forces than SnPb, both below and above the knee function for any given Au content.

The best solution is still to avoid or remove gold plating, however.
David Mullins, Gavial Engineering and Manufacturing
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