An investigation into zinc diffusion and tin whisker growth for electroplated tin deposits on brass

It is widely documented that whisker growth is more rapid for tin deposits on brass compared with deposits produced on other substrate materials, such as copper. As a result, studies investigating the effect of process variables on tin whisker formation are often conducted on brass substrates to take advantage of the increased whisker growth rates. Although it has been understood since the 1960s that the increased whisker growth results from zinc diffusion, to date there has not been any detailed analysis of the zinc/zinc oxide distribution at the surface of the tin deposit. Using a commercial bright tin electroplating bath, the formation of zinc oxide at the surface of tin deposits on brass has been investigated. Analyses show that zinc oxide is present on the surface of the deposit within 1 day of electroplating. During storage at room temperature, a network of zinc oxide is formed at the surface grain boundaries, the extent of which increases with time. The critical role that zinc surface diffusion plays in whisker growth for tin deposits on brass has been demonstrated by electrochemical oxidation of the tin shortly after electroplating. This develops a tin oxide film that is thicker than the native air-formed oxide and subsequently serves as a diffusion barrier to zinc surface diffusion, thereby mitigating whisker growth.