Solder is the conductive metal glue that one uses to stick components together. If you get the component and the PCB hot enough, and melt a little solder in the joint, it will stay put and conduct reliably. But it’s far from simple.
There are many different solder alloys, and even the tip of the soldering iron itself is a multi-material masterpiece. In this article, we’ll take a look at the metallurgy behind soldering, and you’ll see why soldering tip maintenance, and regular replacement, is a good idea. Naturally, we’ll also touch upon the role that lead plays in solder alloys, and what the effect is of replacing it with other metals when going lead-free. What are you soldering with? Continue reading “The Fascinating World Of Solder Alloys And Metallurgy”→
Imagine what it must have been like for the first human to witness an aurora. It took a while for our species to migrate from its equatorial birthplace to latitudes where auroras are common, so it was a fairly recent event geologically speaking. Still, that first time seeing the shimmers and ribbons playing across a sky yet to be marred by light pollution must have been terrifying and thrilling, and like other displays of nature’s power, it probably fueled stories of gods and demons. The myths and legends born from ignorance of what an aurora actually represents seem quaint to most of us, but it was as good a model as our ancestors needed to explain the world around them.
Our understanding of auroras needs to be a lot deeper, though, because we now know that they are not only a beautiful atmospheric phenomenon but also a critical component in the colossal electromagnetic system formed by our planet and our star. Understanding how it works is key to everything from long-distance communication to keeping satellites in orbit to long-term weather predictions.
But how exactly does one study an aurora? Something that’s so out of reach and so evanescent seems like it would be hard to study. While it’s not exactly easy science to do, it is possible to directly study auroras, and it involves some interesting technology that actually changes them, somehow making the nocturnal light show even more beautiful.
Often it feels as if soldering is deemed to be more of an art form than something that’s underpinned by the cold, hard reality of physics and chemistry. From organic chemistry with rosin, to the material properties of fragile gold bond wires and silicon dies inside IC packages and the effects of thermal stress on the different parts of an IC package, it’s a complicated topic that deserves a lot more attention than it usually gets.
A casual inquiry around one’s friends, acquaintances, colleagues and perfect strangers on the internet usually reveals the same pattern: people have picked up a soldering iron at some point, and either figured out what seemed to work through trial and error, or learned from someone else who has learned what seemed to work through trial and error. Can we say something scientific about soldering?
For most of the history of industrial electronics, solder has been pretty boring. Mix some lead with a little tin, figure out how to wrap it around a thread of rosin, and that’s pretty much it. Sure, flux formulations changed a bit, the ratio of lead to tin was tweaked for certain applications, and sometimes manufacturers would add something exotic like a little silver. But solder was pretty mundane stuff.
Then in 2003, the dull gray world of solder got turned on its head when the European Union adopted a directive called Restriction of Hazardous Substances, or RoHS. We’ve all seen the little RoHS logos on electronics gear, and while the directive covers ten substances including mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium, it has been most commonly associated with lead solder. RoHS, intended in part to reduce the toxicity of an electronic waste stream that amounts to something like 50 million tons a year worldwide, marked the end of the 60:40 alloy’s reign as the king of electrical connections, at least for any products intended for the European market, when it went into effect in 2006.
If you need help visualizing magnetic fields, these slow-motion video captures should educate or captivate you. Flux lines are difficult to describe in words, because magnet shape and strength play a part. It might thus be difficult to visualize what is happening with a conical magnet, for a person used to a bar magnet. We should advise you before you watch the video below the break, if you are repelled by the sight of magnetite sand clogging a bare magnet then flying on the floor, this is your only warning.
The technique and equipment are simple and shown in the video. A layer of black sand is spread on a piece of tense plastic to make something like a dirty trampoline, and a neodymium magnet is dropped in the middle. The bouncing action launches the sand and magnet simultaneously so they are hanging in the air and the particles can move with little more than air resistance.
These videos were all taken with a single camera and a single magnet. Multiple cameras would yield 3D visuals, and the intertwining fields of multiple magnets can be beautiful. Perhaps a helix of spherical magnets? What do you have lying around the hosue? In a twist, we can use magnets to simulate gas atoms and trick them into performing unusual feats.
There’s something compelling about high-altitude ballooning. For not very much money, you can release a helium-filled bag and let it carry a small payload aloft, and with any luck graze the edge of space. But once you retrieve your payload package – if you ever do – and look at the pretty pictures, you’ll probably be looking for the next challenge. In that case, adding a little science with this high-altitude muon detector might be a good mission for your next flight.
[Jeremy and Jason Cope] took their inspiration for their HAB mission from our coverage of a cheap muon detector intended exactly for this kind of citizen science. Muons constantly rain down upon the Earth from space with the atmosphere absorbing some of them, so the detection rate should increase with altitude. [The Cope brothers] flew two of the detectors, to do coincidence counting to distinguish muons from background radiation, along with the usual suite of gear, like a GPS tracker and their 2016 Hackaday prize entry flight data recorder for HABs.
The payload went upstairs on a leaky balloon starting from upstate New York and covered 364 miles (586 km) while managing to get to 62,000 feet (19,000 meters) over a five-hour trip. The [Copes] recovered their package in Maine with the help of a professional tree-climber, and their data showed the expected increase in muon flux with altitude. The GoPro died early in the flight, but the surviving footage makes a nice video of the trip.
Did you ever stop to think how unlikely the discovery of soldering is? It’s hard to imagine what sequence of events led to it; after all, metals heated to just the right temperature while applying an alloy of lead and tin in the right proportions in the presence of a proper fluxing agent doesn’t seem like something that would happen by accident.
Luckily, [Chris] at Clickspring is currently in the business of recreating the tools and technologies that would have been used in ancient times, and he’s made a wonderful video on precision soft soldering the old-fashioned way. The video below is part of a side series he’s been working on while he builds a replica of the Antikythera mechanism, that curious analog astronomical computer of antiquity. Many parts in the mechanism were soldered, and [Chris] explores plausible methods using tools and materials known to have been available at the time the mechanism was constructed (reported by different historians as any time between 205 BC and 70 BC or so). His irons are forged copper blocks, his heat source is a charcoal fire, and his solder is a 60:40 mix of lead and tin, just as we use today. He vividly demonstrates how important both surface prep and flux are, and shows both active and passive fluxes. He settled on rosin for the final joints, which turned out silky smooth and perfect; we suspect it took quite a bit of practice to get the technique down, but as always, [Chris] makes it look easy.