ADVANCEMENTS IN ELECTROLESS NICKEL PLATING TECHNOLOGY FOR PRINTED CIRCUITS By Donald W. Baudrand The printed wiring board (PWB) industry is developing a number of new manufacturing methods to meet the increasing demand for close dimensional tolerances found in densely packed circuitry. Surface-mount devices (SMDs), for example, require fine lines, tiny "vices", and close spacing; and large-scale integrated circuits require a large number of leads on tightly spaced centers. Some of the current industry trends are: 1. Complete automation of the PWB manufacturing process 2. Composite substrates for leadless ceramic chip carriers 3. New P.W.B. substrate materials such as extruded or molded thermoplastics 4. Permanent resists to protect fragile fine lines 5. Dry, thermomagnetic resist process 6. Laser exposure of artwork and resist-covered boards 7. Multi-layer boards 8. New processing steps and materials such as additive/semi-additive circuit production and special electro-/electroless plating materials This paper will discuss special electroless nickel plating processes which provide the finish required for surface mount technology, multi-layer P.W. boards, PWB contact surfaces, and boards exposed to high temperatures. Surface Mount Technology In order to provide a surface which can be used for surface mount components (direct mounting and connecting of microelectronic components), the P.W. board finish must be receptive to effective wire bonding, die bonding, and soldering. Very few finishes can provide a suitable surface capable of all three attachment processes. Gold, for example, which is most widely used, is not ideal for soldering or wire bonding. Gold in a solder joint causes a dull, weak joint and will contaminate the solder pot to the extent that it must be discarded (reclaiming the gold where possible) periodically. (1) Wire bonding to gold will sometimes have voids under the wire (Kirkendahl voiding) resulting in a weak bond. (2,3) Die attachment using gold/silicon pre-forms is excellent, but less satisfactory if epoxy die attaching is used. Other metals commonly and tin-lead deposits, Electrodeposited nickel Copper solders well if well. used for P.W. finishes have similar shortcomings. Tin for example, solder well but cannot be wire bonded. does not solder well after aging, even for a short time. pre-cleaned after aging, but does not wire or die bond Specially formulated electroless nickel deposits, on the other hand, are capable of providing excellent bonding characteristics for wire bonding by ultrasonic or thermalsonic methods, die attachment by gold/silicon or epoxy methods, and are solderable using RMA fluxes. Table I shows typical bond strength data for aluminum wire bonding to electroless nickel-boron deposits. TABLE I - ULTRASONIC BOND STRENGTH OF .001 IN. DIA. ALUMINUM WIRE ON ELECTROLESS NICKEL-BORON DEPOSITS Deposit Thickness p In. 12.5 24.4 49 65 86 114 .3% BORON Wire bond strength - grams • 41 6.38 - .• 42 6.51 - .• 38 6.0 - .27 6.51 - .• 34 6.24 - . 6.4-. 26 Solderability was tested on steam aged plated panels using a meniscograph with a Soltec recorder. The solder was 63/37 tin-lead at 240C. A time of 1 second is considered excellent with 2.5 seconds satisfactory. TABLE II - SOLDERABILITY TEST RESULTS FOR NICKEL-BORON ALLOYS Boron Content % Bath pH Treatment Flux Average Value in Seconds To Reach Zero-Force Axis .2 6.5 Steam aged* RMA 2.3 .2 6.5 Steam aged RA 0.73 .2 6.5 Degreased RMA 1.18 .3 6.5 Degreased RMA 1.18 3 6.0 Degreased RMA 1.13 3 6.0 Steam aged RMA 1.65 3 6.0 Steam aged RA 0.8 TABLE III - SOLDERABILITY TEST DATA FOR NICKEL-PHOSPHORUS ALLOYS Phosphorus % Average Value in Seconds To Reach Zero-Force Axis Bath pH Treatment Flux 4 9.5 Degreased RMA 1.98 slidewetting 8 4.8 Steam aged RA 1.10 8 4.8 Steam aged RMA 2.7 slidewetting 11 4.8 Degreased RMA 1.85 11 4.8 Steam aged RMA 1.75 11 5.2 Degreased RMA 1.89 The steam aging was conducted for 1 hour in accordance with MIL-STD-202, Method 208. These tests show that electroless nickel-boron deposits exhibit good solderability using RMA flux, or stronger, even after steam aging. Die bonding - pre-form processing using electroless nickel-boron is replacing spot gold plating for die attachment in numerous applications. Gold-silicon preforms bond well to nickel-boron deposits, as do conductive and non-conductive epoxy die attachment compounds. Cox and Dean (4) reported difficulty in die bonding to alloy 194 copper lead frames with electrodeposited nickel. "No problems were experienced with electroless-nickel plated frames." The mode of failure from electroplated nickel was de-wetting of the gold-silicon eutectic from the lead frame. No de-wetting was observed when 50 micro in. of electroless nickel was plated onto the copper alloy. MULTI-LAYER PRINTED WIRING BOARDS The requirement for small hole diameters and a large number of layers creates exacting demands on present plating interconnect processes. The limitation of current distribution, causing low current density inside small diameter holes (which are also deep due to the several layers stacked) results in either thin copper deposits or voids. The voids result from either incomplete electroless copper deposition or burn-out which occurs when current is applied but no electroplated copper is deposited. The thin electroless copper deposit is dissolved by the copper electroplating solution. Certain electroless nickel systems of low phosphorus or boron content can be plated easily to greater thickness and with complete coverage than with most electroless coppers and are capable of surviving the plating conditions, allowing electroplated copper to deposit. In some cases the electroless nickel deposit can be the entire interconnect conductor. For example, multilayer printed wiring boards have been successfully produced which had twenty layers with holes of .010" diameter, others with 40 layers and holes of .020" diameter. These are used in high frequency circuits where low background noise is required. Electroless copper was not only incapable of interconnecting all the holes in the PWB, but the few successful connections resulted in high noise (low signalto-noise ratio). The electrical resistivity of electroless nickel is higher than that of electrodeposited copper (8-12.i ohm/cm for electroless nickel and 1.7-4 p ohm/cm for copper). However, for low current, high frequency applications the difference is negligible. PWB CONTACT SURFACES Contact surfaces such as plug-in "fingers" require good wear resistance, low electrical resistance, corrosion resistance, and heat resistance. Electroless nickel-boron and some low-phosphorus deposits meet these requirements either alone or overplated with a thin (up to 5 micro inches) layer of gold. HIGH TEMPERATURE EXPOSURE Because electroless nickel deposits are good diffusion barriers compared with electrodeposited nickel and most other metals, electroless nickel-plated copper circuits and contacts can withstand high heat environments such as "burn-in" products. "Burn-in" cycles are typically run from room temperature to 93.3 C (200F) alternately for from 1 day to 1 week. Isolated copper circuit areas can be plated electrolessly by using a special electroless nickel poly-alloy strike followed by more conventional electroless nickel deposits. (Copper is not considered catalytic to electroless nickelphosphorus deposition.) This unique property provides great versatility in the use of electroless nickel for printed wire boards. CONCLUSION As the printed wiring board industry develops smaller, higher density, and more complex circuits with tiny vias, hole pads, and surface mounting areas in close proximity and with small diameter through-holes, the performance requirements of plated deposits will become more critical and have tighter tolerances. Electroless nickel formulations of low phosphorus or boron content can fulfill all of these requirements, often without the need of any additional plated deposits. On PWB's requiring copper deposits, an overplate of these electroless nickel alloys will provide the multiple properties of solderability and wire and die bondability that are prerequisites for successful surface mounting of components. The versatility and excellent deposit characteristics of electroless nickel deposits will continue to meet the needs of the advancing state of the art. REFERENCES 1. H. Manko, Solders and Soldering, 2nd Ed McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, N.Y. 1969; p76 2. E. Philofsky, Solid State Electronic, 13, 1391 (1970) 3. C.W. Horsting, Proceedings of the 10th Annual Reliability Physics, IEEE, 155 (1972) 4. B.T. Cox and S.W. Dean Jr., "Analysis of Die Bond Failures On Alloy 194 Lead Frames," Proc. of Technical Program of NEPCON, 1976, pp 11-118.