11 December 2012

A proposed root cause for the "Withering Filters" phenomenon

Fig. 1 Photo by Jerzy,
(Click to enlarge)
After having examined the failure mechanism of more than 100 ceramic filters that have succumbed to electromigration, I think I have collected enough data to propose a root cause for the phenomenon that has caused failure of a very large numbers of filters. I should gratefully thank the many fellow radio amateurs that have sent photos of their filters to me, adding to my database on the subject. Manufacturers might want to consider changing their production methods to avoid the chain of events that I propose that leads to this phenomenon.

So, let's look at the data I have collected and a proposed theory that explains the facts:

Fig. 2. Note the water droplets.
1) In all of the ceramic filters I have examined, there was a surprising quantity of water inside the plastic case (take a look at Figs 1, 2 and observe the signs of water presence on the elements and inside the black case, also the whitish flux residue on the case of the adjacent filter in Fig. 1, which shows that a quantity of water evaporated from that surface, leaving it behind). The water inside the case causes the filter to fail soon after the transceiver circuit applies DC voltage to the input, and mainly the output pins of the filter. The quantity of water is such, that can't be attributed to a filter manufacturing flaw: it's just too much. I can't imagine that the filter manufacturers would have ignored it. Also, I haven't found water inside some new filters I have "dissected". So, there must be another reason for this quantity of water inside the filter.

2) Where does the water come from, if not from a filter manufacturing flaw? I think the answer lies with the newer technologies and materials used for the fabrication of populated printed circuit boards (PCBs). Briefly, the new methods of wave soldering with non-Pb solders extensively use organic acid (OA) fluxes. Those fluxes are removed from the PCBs after wave soldering by pressure rinsing with hot water. The rinsing process takes some time to complete.

3) I think that the water ingress can be explained thus. The rinsing process uses hot water (about 70 degrees Celsius), sometimes with ionic additives. This (as well as the previous soldering process) causes the (so far dry) air inside the plastic filter case to expand, creating positive pressure inside the filter case. This results in air escaping from inside the filter case, as the temperature softens the plastic case and compromises the (not so great to begin with) sealing at the bottom of the filter case.
When the PCB exits the rinsing process, water is held by affinity under the filter case, between the filter and the PCB surface. The filter starts cooling down, and this causes the pressure inside the filter to drop under the atmospheric pressure. This negative relative pressure tends to draw a small quantity of the water under the filter inside the filter case, through the very fine cracks at the filter case seals that the positive air pressure (when the filter was hot) created. The quantity of the water is some micrograms, but it's more than enough to cause trouble. The board is then dried, but the accident has already happened. The water is already inside the filter.

4) Once inside the filter, the water can't escape and remains trapped inside the case. Some of it condenses or moves on the filter plates, starting the electromigration process where the electric field (due to the externally applied voltage) reaches sufficient value. This most often occurs at the corners of the thin output ceramic plate (element) at the output of the filter, which is only about 0.35 mm thick. This leads to the failure of the filter after some time.

5) What might be a solution? A slight modification of the rinsing - drying process might help in avoiding this phenomenon.
If the PCB is dried IMMEDIATELY after exiting the rinsing chamber with pressurised HOT air, then the water might not get inside the filter case, as the pressure difference doesn't occur this way before the water has been removed from under the filter.
I have no further knowledge of the exact conditions used in any particular case, so the above proposal may not always apply. But each manufacturer could certainly review the method used and modify it accordingly, so as to avoid the conditions that drive water inside the filter case (and possibly inside other "sealed" components, such as miniature relays).

If someone with more knowledge of the PCB processing methods wishes to add (or correct!) something in the above, please send an e-mail to sv8ym@raag.org.


Addendum: The above suggest that if you repair (clean and dry thoroughly with hot air) or replace a filter that has gone bad through water ingress during the rinsing procedure with a brand new one that hasn't come in contact with water, you may not have problems in the long run, even if you don't also install DC-blocking capacitors. That is so because you need BOTH water AND a voltage gradient to start electromigration. A completely dry filter probably can withstand 7-8 V indefinitely (as experience with older rigs shows - the PCBs were washed with organic solvents a long time ago, in the paleolithic Pb era!).