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Understanding Gold on Nickel

The use of gold layers deposited onto nickel is standard in many industries, from DRAM memory module edge connectors, to electrical test probe contacts, to power semiconductor die metallizations and wirebonding pads. While the role of gold in the final solder joint is well-understood, I wanted to learn more about the gold deposition process from an industry expert, so was given the chance to discuss this with Lenora Toscano, MS, Final Finish Product Manager with MacDermid.
 

Andy Mackie: What role does gold play in protecting surfaces in SMT and semiconductor assembly processes?
 

Lenora Toscano: Gold does not form an oxide; it protects the nickel from oxidation or passivation. A clean nickel surface has very high solderability for most solder types, but its oxide is very difficult to remove with standard flux types. Also, gold dissolves almost instantaneously into most solders during assembly, thus promoting superior wettability.

 

Andy Mackie: What standards exist on the thickness of gold for different electronics and semiconductor assembly applications?


Lenora Toscano: The main application of ENIG (electroless nickel/immersion gold) coating is in chip-on-board (COB) technology, the typical thickness of the immersion gold layer on the HDI substrate being 3-5 micro-inches.

 

Edge connectors typically require the use of hard gold. Acid gold deposits are used for compliance with MIL-STD-275, which states that gold shall be in accordance with MIL-G-45204, Type II, Class 1. The thickness shall be 50-100 micro-inches, typical thickness is 30-50 micro-inches on 150micro-inches nickel.

 

On the other hand, for solderable surfaces, typical thickness is 5-15 micro-inches on 150micro-inches nickel.

 

For wire bonding, in general, gold plating of a minimum of 30 micro-inches on 200 micro-inches nickel works well. Soft gold is generally preferred. Soft gold processes are also used for boards designed for semiconductor chip (die) attachment. These qualities comply with Type I and III of MIL-G-45204.

  

Andy Mackie:  What are the differences between gold layers deposited by immersion gold and electroplated gold processes?

Lenora Toscano: There are five main differences:

  1. The coating thickness is different. Immersion gold is a displacement reaction, gold displaces the nickel on the surface, and is self-limiting as the nickel surface is coated with the immersion gold. Common baths cannot produce thicknesses of much more than 10 micro-inches, while with electroplated gold the thickness depends on current and time. The higher current or longer the plating time the thicker the gold coating.
  2. The structure of the gold deposit layers is different. Electroplated gold is denser that the naturally porous immersion deposit.
  3. The hardness is usually different. Electroplated gold often has other metals introduced into the plating that make the deposit harder.
  4. Porosity is different. Immersion deposits have more porosity that electroplated deposits; it is the nature of the plating system.
  5. Deposition composition (purity) varies with additives in the bath. Immersion gold baths contain gold as the only plated metal, while electroplating systems may introduce small amounts of other metals.

Andy Mackie: How thick does gold have to be to fully protect the underlying surface, and what are the trade-offs as customers attempt to reduce their gold costs?

Lenora Toscano: Per IPC-4552 ENIG specification, 1.97 micro-inches is the recommended minimum at +/-4 sigma from the mean, with 3 – 5 micro-inches being typical.

 

The immersion gold deposit is porous by definition. It does offer very good protection to the underlying nickel, but over time the porosity of the deposit results in the passivation of the nickel surface and the wetting forces will be reduced. Of course, this process should take years to occur, but if the gold coating is too thin (below the minimum requirement), it will occur sooner and affect the solderability. 

 

Andy Mackie: What advantage does gold have over silver or other metals?

 

Lenora Toscano: Again, gold has good tarnish resistance and solderability after storage because it does not form an oxide or hydroxides, so it is unaffected by temperature and storage conditions that might reduce the shelf-life of the other finishes. It meets requirements for lead-free (Pb-free) assembly while offering a coplanar surface that is both solderable and aluminum-wire and gold-wire bondable.

 

Gold has good electrical conductivity, and produces a contact surface with low electrical resistance. Electroplated gold is also an excellent etch resist.

 

Electroplated silver is not widely used in the printed circuit industry. Under certain conditions or electrical potential and humidity, silver will migrate along the surface of the deposit and through the body of insulation to produce low-resistance leakage paths. Alkaline cyanide baths for silver electroplating are highly toxic.

 

Immersion silver is susceptible to problems if not correctly stored and even packaged. Packaging materials that contain sulfur or allow exposure to air will result in tarnishing of the surface (sulfide, sulfate, and chloride formation). High levels of surface contamination can detrimentally affect solderability.


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Lenora - many thanks for your time, and  for sharing your expertise with us.

Cheers! Andy