"Tin whisker" crisis threatens global electronic systems

tin whiskers

Tin Whiskers might sound like the name of a bad 70s metal band (and it may well be, for all we know), but according to Fortune it's actually a serious problem that threatens to bring our happy interconnected world crashing down around our heads. Remember a few years ago when millions of pagers, cellphones and ATMs went on the blink all at once? (Actually, neither do we, but we have this memory problem.) Turns out the culprit was a tin whisker outbreak on a communications satellite, which caused it to go dead. For the uninitiated, tin whiskers are tiny hairlike strands that grow on the surface of some metals. Under certain circumstances, the strands can grow long enough to short out the circuits that host them, with potentially calamitous results. Though the problem first surfaced in telecom systems in the 1940s, scientists thought they had a solution: add lead to all conductive materials and the whiskers went away. Problem is, lead is highly toxic, and is now being banned in electronic products sold in the EU (but not in the freewheeling, devil-may-care U.S.). Unfortunately, manufacturers haven't come up with a lead-free whisker solution, hence the current panic. So, slow death from lead poisoning, or the gradual collapse of the global communications infrastructure. Isn't it fun when technology gives us such great options?