Lead-Free Electronics Pose Reliability Problems (excerpt)
(Source: US Naval Air Systems Command; issued Sept. 17, 2007)
New environmental standards are restricting the use of lead and other hazardous substances commonly found in electrical and electronic components possibly complicating and hindering Naval aviation readiness levels.

The lead-free restrictions recently put on micro-electronics and circuit board soldering methods comes from the Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive from the European Union restricting the use of six substances commonly used in electrical and electronic equipment – lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

China took similar steps to reduce hazardous pollutants when they enacted RoHS initiatives March 1, 2007.

Why do these EU and Asian directives matter to the U.S.? Because most of the electronic equipment the U.S. buys comes from Pacific Rim nations where these items are produced. These new environmental regulations were designed to impact the massive amount of throw away electronic consumer items that are clogging landfills worldwide. When cell phones, computers, televisions and other household electronic devices degrade, the chemicals that makes up the solder leach into the soil contaminating the area.

“Lead was introduced back in the 1940s to help the solder flow better,” said Bob Maskasky, an avionics engineer from Fleet Readiness Center South East in Jacksonville, Fla. “Engineers found than without lead, pure tin solder had a tendency to grow thin strands from the solder joint that could grow over the years and cause the circuitry to short out. Traditional tin-lead solder is 63 percent tin and 37 percent lead.”

Cleaning up the environment is a good thing. Most would agree. But what are the implications to the aerospace industry in general and specifically the Navy’s aircraft fleet? How will it change the way DoD tests and maintains aircraft systems? Are there already lead-free parts circulating the supply chain? Do engineers have to recertify and redesign systems that are already in use? How much money will it cost?

Military and defense contractors are exempt from RoHS but aerospace shares a common supply chain with the rest of the world. The DoD accounts for less than one percent of the world’s electrical and electronic component market. Because of this phenomenon, legacy products and materials are being phased out with little to no regard to military and aerospace electronics, and are being replaced with lead-free equivalents.

“The typical life of commercial electronic devices is three to seven years compared to decades for DoD systems,” said Lloyd Condra, Chairman of the Lead Free Electronics in Aerospace Project (LEAP). “In fact, we’re seeing device manufactures optimizing the design of microcircuits to wear out in that same timeframe.” (end of excerpt)

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