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Network World - Rather than cursing out Apple, Sony, HP or Cisco the next time your smartphone or server conks out, maybe you should instead be directing your frustration at tiny metal filaments that grow inside the devices called tin whiskers.
METAL WHISKERS: In pictures
Tin, or metal, whiskers have been known about since the 1940s as a contributor to electronic device problems, but new material science research out of the University of South Carolina provides new understanding of the phenomenon.
A mechanical engineering doctoral student at the College of Engineering and Computing named Yong Sun, using digital image correlation, has discovered that the short circuit-causing wisps of metal that grow out of the tin used to solder and coat electronic circuits are the result of stress (or "high-strain gradient") in the devices. And they are likely to become only more prevalent as devices are miniaturized.
Metal whiskers, which have interfered with everything from satellites to watches to data center systems, have been lessened in the past through use of lead. But bans on using that substance have required manufacturers to seek other solutions. Yong's discovery could help device makers consider new manufacturing processes that deliver less stress-infused products.
"This [research] is a very big deal. As we move toward nano-scale devices, this is a problem that needs to be solved," says Xiaodong Li, a University of South Carolina professor, in a statement.
Network World has tracked the metal whisker issue over the years, largely based on concerns about the impact on data center devices such as servers and switches and routers. We spoke with IT directors who were practically going crazy trying to find out what was causing server and other outages, only to learn that metal whiskers were the likely culprits, sometimes lurking on floor tiles, breaking off and finding their way into computer gear.
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