The ever-increasing demand for reliability, continuing miniaturization, and the growing number of faults in electronic components manufactured in no-clean processes all combine to put the focus back on cleaning in electronics manufacturing. The industry offers a variety of solutions to finding the optimal cleaning process.
Cleaning with water-based media is generally done in dipping systems with multiple cleaning and rinsing baths. (Photo: Amsonic)
The development of no-clean fluxes and soldering pastes has done much to turn attention away from the need to clean components in electronics manufacturing. For many components that are only used in non-critical atmospheric environments, this mostly poses no problem. However, where they are utilized in adverse environments (such as humid or fluctuating temperatures), the protective layer applied in the no-clean process can be gradually eroded, releasing ionizing substances that promote electro-migration and dendritic growth. This occurs chiefly in narrow spaces beneath components and between their connections or other contact surfaces.
Increased requirement for surface cleanliness
In addition, protective coatings (conformal coatings), progressive miniaturization, wire bonding, and the increased use high voltage components all call for a high level of surface cleanliness. A further aspect is the use of lead-free solders, containing a higher proportion of fluxes and more aggressive activators that can cause problems. Cleaning of electronic components also involves removing potentially hazardous impurities such as fluxes, residues of soldering agents and adhesives, and such contaminants as dust and residue from previous manufacturing stages.
Choosing the right cleansing agent
A key factor in achieving economy and efficiency in the cleaning process is the selection of a suitable cleansing agent. Selection criteria include the nature and quantity of the impurities to be removed, and the subject material. Cleaning agents currently used in electronics manufacturing include solvents, water-based media containing alkaline surfactants, and water-based tenside-free cleaning agents.
The electronics industry mainly uses solvents containing non-halogenated hydrocarbons, modified alcohols, or hydrofluorethers (HFEs). HFEs were developed as an alternative to the previously preferred chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), after CFC manufacture was stopped about 20 years ago due to their high potential for breaking down ozone. Non-inflammable HFEs have similar properties to CFCs, but pose no danger to ozone, do not persist in the atmosphere, and have low greenhouse gas potential. At the same time, they offer physical properties that are in demand for the cleaning of electronics, such as relatively high density, low viscosity, and low surface tension. These solvents are used in monosolvent, cosolvent, and bisolvent systems.
Ultrasound has a wide range of cleaning applications in the electronics and semiconductor industry. The cleansing sound waves are used in conjunction with solvents and water-based media. (Photo: Weber Ultrasonics)
A monosolvent system usually uses a pure HFE or an azeotrope—a mixture of two or more components that vaporizes without changing its chemical composition. It is used to remove slight impurities such as light oils, halogen compounds, residue of easy clean solvent, particles, and dust.
The cosolvent system consists of an HFE combined with a low-volatility organic solvent as a solubility promoter. The solubility promoter removes impurities from the surface of the workpiece and the HFE rinses away the solvent and the impurities from the components. Cleaning with a cosolvent procedure is extremely versatile and also gives good results with the most stubborn impurities such as heavy oils, grease, waxes, NC-flux residues, adhesives, and hot-melt glues. Choice of a low-volatility organic solvent allows material compatibility to be tested.
CO2 snow-jet cleaning permits dry and gentle removal of films and particle impurities, for instance around wire bonds. The ease of automating this cleaning process allows it to be integrated as part of the bonding system. (Photo: ACP)
Cosolvent and bisolvent systems differ mainly in that, for the cosolvent system, the solvent and the rinsing agent are mixed together, while in the bisolvent process they are kept separate.
Optimizing a process by adapting the plant technology
To ensure efficient and reproducible cleaning, it is essential to match the cleaning agent to the plant technology. That is why so many different cleaning systems are available, such as dipping plants with ultrasound or pressure flooding and spray cleaning plants. Solvents are used today in totally enclosed cleaning units.
Ultrasound cleaning with solvents or water-based media offers a wide range of applications in electronics manufacturing. Another factor that influences the cleaning action, in addition to the cleansing agent, is the frequency of the electrical signals from the ultrasound generator, which converts the oscillating system to sound waves in the fluid bath. In general, the lower the electrical signal frequency, the greater the energy released by the sound waves. There are multi-frequency systems that permit acoustic irradiation of the goods to be cleaned at different frequencies; the optimum combination of cleansing agent and ultrasound frequency can be determined from cleaning tests, carried out by the equipment suppliers or the cleaning agent.
The demand for reliability and longer life span of electronic components put the focus back on cleaning in electronics manufacturing. (Photo: Puretecs)
In selecting the type of cleaning equipment to use, key questions are: What throughput must be handled? What space is available in which to set up the equipment? How can the cleaning process be integrated into the manufacturing chain?
Dry alternatives with carbon dioxide
Cleaning with compressed carbon dioxide provides an extension to the wet-chemical process. The term "compressed carbon dioxide" indicates CO2 that has been converted to liquid form (that is, into its supercritical phase) under pressure; in this form, it possesses excellent properties as a solvent upon a range of nonpolar impurities such as grease and oils. Supercritical CO2 has low viscosity and low interfacial tension, resulting in improved ability to penetrate crevices. This enables cleaning of components with highly complex geometries such as tiny drilled holes. In electronics manufacturing this technology offers the ability to clean such items as complete PCBs and assemblies, removing flux residues and cleaning away oils and grease from metallic components such as contacts. It meets the requirement for an environmentally friendly, dry, and residue-free procedure.
Plasma cleaning permits efficient surface treatment of electronic parts and components of different materials. (Photo: Diener Electronic)
Liquid carbon dioxide is also used as the medium in CO2 snow-jet cleaning—in this case in the form of minute snow crystals. With its combination of chemical, thermal, and mechanical properties, the non-poisonous and non-inflammable CO2 snow removes surface films and particulate contamination leaving no residue, and can also be used selectively on functional areas such as contact points. Since the cleaning is itself a dry process, there is no need for an energy-intensive subsequent drying procedure. The procedure is employed in the most diverse of applications in electronics manufacturing, such as in preparation for bonding processes, equipping PCBs and foil-PCBs, and in the manufacture of metal-insulator semiconductors (MISs).
Plasma: cleaning in the fourth state of aggregation
Plasma, a gaseous mixture of atoms, molecules, ions, and free electrons, allows efficient surface treatment of electronic parts and components of different materials, simultaneously cleaning away organic impurities such as oils and grease and activating the surface. This double function is based on a physical and chemical reaction during the procedure. Depending on the application in question, low-pressure plasmas or inline-capable atmospheric pressure plasmas can be used. With low-pressure plasmas, both oxidizing and reducing processes can be carried out. An oxidizing plasma can clean away organic contaminants such as grease, oil, and adhesive residue prior to soldering or bonding. A reducing plasma process can be used, for example, to improve bonded connections by reduction of electro-plated metallic layers. Surface cleaning and activation by atmospheric pressure plasmas are used in the electronics industry in such tasks as pre-printing, bonding, or casting of electronics boards and semiconductors, manufacture of opto-electronic components, and prior to wire-bonding.
Non-inflammable HFEs allow for reliable removal of flux residues with good results. (Photo: Puretecs