We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Tin whiskers. If you use a pure tin solder then the electronics will grow little whiskers which will, over the course of perhaps 3 or 4 years, short circuit the system. Hmm, OK, has a good chance of doing so. The cure for tin whiskers is to add lead to the tin solder. This is now illegal because using lead is verboeten on environmental grounds. Thus we have a shorter life span for electronics. And yes, it is worth noting that the electronics which really does have to be reliable is not subject to the no lead rule.

Tim Worstall

23 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Plamus

    Let’s use some ballpark numbers to see the magnitude of the problem.

    Let’s assume the Europeans (+ UK and Norway) junk one billion electronic devices a year (probably fewer), and the average device contains 10 grams of lead (probably way less). That gives you 10,000 tons of lead not entering the environment.

    There are roughly 300 million motor vehicles in the EU. The average vehicle battery lasts 3 years, so 100 million batteries get junked each year. Of those less than half get recycled, so 50 million batteries end up in the landfills. The average battery has about 10 kg of lead, so 500,000 tons of lead enter the environment.

    So, with conservative assumptions (including 0% electronics recycling), the car battery problem is 50x bigger.

    I do not endorse such policies, but… you could eliminate the same amount of lead as the full electronic haul by recycling one million more car batteries. You could easily accomplish this by paying one million vehicle owners 100 Euro (the cost of a top-tier new battery) for their old battery, for a total cost of 100 mln Euro. At the 1 bln devices assumption (see above), that’s a cost of 10 Euro cents per device. A tiny tax, versus an ill-conceived regulation that probably causes at least an order of magnitude more in economic damage through premature obsolescence of electronic devices.

    But that would not justify some EU drone’s (or, more likely, a whole bunch of EU drones’) job/s, so here we are. I’d be curious to see if the metric tons of paperwork that led to this mention cost-benefit analysis or alternative solutions.

  • Douglas2

    The reliability issues stemming from the ROHS lead-free directive and the “capacitor plague” were unfortunately overlapping, and we’ve been through an era of vastly shortened lifespan and frequent premature failure for electronic products.

    But there are things one can do to reduce tin-whisker effects other than just using lead-solder. Other metals in the solder and plating, expanding distance between conductive traces and parts, physical barriers, conformal coatings, etc.

    Another issue is that the working temperature for solder without lead is a much smaller range, so there have been a lot of poorly soldered things put out into the market.

    I’m still coming across new equipment shipping with dated power-supply modules from the capacitor-plague era, but otherwise my impression is that most reputable designers and manufacturers have worked out how to make stuff so that it will nearly always keep working well past the warrantee period.

    I’m certainly not saying this justifies ROHS, or that it wasn’t stupid and counterproductive. Just that the most drastic anticipated direct consequences haven’t happened, so one doesn’t want to look like the ‘boy who cried wolf’ by being intemperate with predictions of doom.

  • bobby b

    Well, except for the poly and the ceramic coatings that we use now to stop whiskering.

    July 22, 2020 at 5:50 pm

    “The average battery has about 10 kg of lead, so 500,000 tons of lead enter the environment.”

    Not to be a pollution-denier, but if we mine the lead and then bury it when we’re done with it, haven’t we just moved it?

    I understand that we’ve concentrated it, but it makes me wonder if what we really need to do is be more careful about designing and siting landfills – but still rely on them.

    (ETA: This “capacitor plague” – is that why I was replacing leaking capacitors left and right on amp equipment back in the late 90’s?)

  • llamas

    Plamus wrote:

    ‘There are roughly 300 million motor vehicles in the EU. The average vehicle battery lasts 3 years, so 100 million batteries get junked each year. Of those less than half get recycled, so 50 million batteries end up in the landfills. The average battery has about 10 kg of lead, so 500,000 tons of lead enter the environment.’

    With ingot lead running about 50c a pound, I highly-doubt that 50 million car batteries are landfilled each year in the EU. If each one contains 22 lb of lead, that’s a billion dollars a year. No, those batteries are being recycled for their lead content – just not in ways visible to the EU. Maybe somebody in the EU can post how much recyclers are paying for used car batteries at the consumer level, and I bet the answer to the question will leap off the page.

    Your larger point stands, of course. The amount of lead in electrical solder is absolutely trivial. With the advent of HAL in the 1990s, I suspect that your average figure of 10g of lead per device is actually high – that would equate to 30g of solder per device. That’s quite a lot, for an average.



  • llamas

    bobby b. wrote

    ‘(ETA: This “capacitor plague” – is that why I was replacing leaking capacitors left and right on amp equipment back in the late 90’s?)’

    I doubt it. IIRC, ‘capacitor plague’ broke out in 2000.



  • bobby b

    Ah. Thanks. I thought it was a plague, though. 😛

  • Plamus

    bobby b, not my area of expertise, but I would imagine that the bigger problem is not the concentration, but that, as you say, we have moved it closer to inhabited areas, where it could enter aquifers. There isn’t a viable alternative to landfills. As my coworker, who is chairman of the local sewer authority says, there are only three ways of dealing with pollutants: ban, concentration, dilution. Dilution only works on a small scale (“If you have a bucket of water, and a bucket of sewage, and you mix them, you now have two buckets of sewage”). Ban is not practical for household waste, although crazier impractical things have been tried before, so…

    As for the “entering the environment” part, I chose the lazy way of conceding that point to the other side. Of course the lead out of a battery or an electronic device does not fully leach out in any reasonable time frame, and there were even “concerns” about lead fumes from burning landfills, even though the typical open fire burns at 1,000-1,100 C, and the lead’s boiling point is 1,749 C.

  • bobby b

    Thanks, Plamus. Makes sense.

  • llamas

    I happily recycle lead – about one a year, we dig out the pits at Ye Olde Arquebus and Jezail Clubbe and put it all through the smelter, and then put it all right back in the pits again over the next year, one piece at a time. It’s the ultimate in closed-loop recycling. The gilding metal residue pays for the propane. It’s like magic.



  • Plamus

    llamas, you are probably right, I was going for back-of-the-envelope numbers. A quick Googling seems to suggest that the price of lead battery scrap is about $0.40/lb in the US, $0.82/kg in Europe, so a typical battery would yield about $15, but with middlemen taking a cut. I have no idea whether that would be enough to incentivize waste-pickers to salvage junked batteries – probably more so in the poorer parts of Europe.

  • Gurzel Wummidge

    llamas, scrap car batteries June price was £390 per ton. UK recycling of them fell because you need a waste license to carry more than 5 in a vehicle and scrap merchants are no longer permitted to pay cash.

  • the other rob

    I have a large stash of old lead bearing solder, mostly 60/40 but some other ratios as well. A lot of it came from a couple of Radio Shack stores, when they went under and there’s enough of it that at my normal hobby rate of use it should last the rest of my lifetime.

    I still snag any random rolls that I come across at yard sales and the like, though.

  • Tim Worstall

    Gurzel Wummidge largely has battery recycling right. A thing Christopher Booker wrote about extensively. There was a perfectly acceptable but not EU paperwork conformant private sector car battery recycling scheme. Bring in the paperwork, prices change because costs do, system falls apart. Battery recycling rates *went down* with the addition of the EU conformant recycling scheme.

    Re capacitor plague I think that was due to tantalum prices soaring. At one point it was profitable – I did it myself, rather more just to show it could be done rather than making a living at it – to buy Ta capacitors on e-Bay at electronics prices then sell them to scrap recyclers at Ta content values. With Ta going over $2,000 a kg (a brief moment) we’d sorta expect people to be trying to economise on the use of it to the detriment of the things being made.

    It all got itself sorted out when we changed the type of capacitor in use from the old type to surface mount (for non-techs, shrink them, sorta, from being gramme (s) weight physical things to being tens of milligrammes electronic things. Sorta, a description that makes sense but is wrong in every detail). Ta demand sank like a stone as did the price even as the number of capacitors in use soared.

  • llamas

    Gurzel Wummidge (great name, btw, say hi to Aunt Sally) –

    Thanks for the pricing – shows that scrap pricing for complete car batteries is comparable in the US vs UK.

    So the incentive is there. I don’t believe that a billion dollars a year in value is being landfilled, not for a minute. I’ll bet that there’s a smooth-running recycling stream that harvests this value, and that it doesn’t bother with waste licenses, and it deals strictly in cash. Smelting lead is easy, any fule can do it (I do it all the time). The last time I saw a cowboy battery recycling setup here in the US, they were opening the batteries with a hydraulic log splitter, which gets the lead out fast and clean and ready for the pot. I’ll wager the waste acid is dumped or leached away in a hundred different ways, and the battery cases get shredded in with used tires, which mostly go to incinerators. It would be a poor scrap dealer indeed who could not wash an illicit stream of metal in with his ‘legitimate’ materials.



  • Mr Ed

    So what you’re saying is that, despite reduced toxicity, solder now needs to ‘socially distance’?

  • Nessimmersion

    What are the chances of UK junking that directive and allowing scrappies to pay cash when we officially leave the EU?
    Are our UK prodnoses so in love with their own authority they will deny the opportunity.
    A clever word campaign would at least make it more apparent to then gen public what dicks we have in authority.

  • Tim the Coder

    It’s very rare to say so, but I think in this case Tim W is mistaken about the capacitor plague.
    This was caused by a new and very big plant making electrolytic capacitors (aluminium) which used the wrong electrolyte. The capacitance dropped and ESR soared after a few years use, especially if the caps had got warm (as is likely in electronic kit).
    These capacitors are everywhere, in switch mode PSU: PC’s, PVR’s, etc etc. Often identifiable as a dull purple/grey colour.

    I have brought many of these failed electronic items back to life by changing all the electrolytics in the switch-mode PSU (be careful, it bites fatally if you are careless).
    There’s quite a lot on the web regarding the plague, how it came about, and how to fix affected kit. Farnell is your friend.
    Oh, and the solder I use is tin/lead.

    Of course, there may have been another capacitor plague re. tantalum caps, also 🙂
    Tantalum use dropped in caps because dry aluminium ones became just as good, and cheaper. But that sector doesn’t cover PSU sizes.

  • Gurzel Wummidge

    Nessimmersion, I don’t think the directive covers cash payments, it’s to save the planet. Cash payments were banned to prevent crime! Except for those without an address can still be paid in cash because reasons. Once we’ve left the proto-EUSSR and can vote for our own idiots again I can see things getting worse until the new environment conditions them to change their behaviour. Then things might change for the better.

  • Rob Fisher

    I agree with the sentiment, but I haven’t directly seen evidence that it’s true. What electronics are being thrown away due to failure?

    The only thing I have thrown away due to electronics failure that I can remember is a CPU + motherboard that stopped powering on. I never figured out whether it was the CPU or the motherboard but it was probably the motherboard and it was probably some bit of power circuitry that failed and that might have been a soldering fault.

    But I’ve replaced a lot of motherboards for other reasons over the years. And not “planned obsolescence”, either. Because people keep inventing better motherboards (I mean, CPU support chipsets do get better, it’s not all socket changes for the sake of selling more stuff).

    I also throw away a lot of smartphones because of no more software support (you have to replace your smartphone when the security updates stop coming). Possibly you could pay directly for the software updates instead of indirectly via buying a new phone, but no-one wants to do that, and also phones do get better too. When phones stop getting better I expect people will keep them for longer.

    So I don’t see evidence of planned obsolescence either.

  • I try not to throw away working computers. I want a fiercer computer than the average septuagenarian. So I tweak the old computers up, and give them to somebody who can use them. There is a local recycling place, Free Geek, that does the same.


    Smartphones are another kettle of fish. They are excellent small readers for Kindle books and fanfiction, play music, and take pictures. Even without a phone company, I can feed them via wi-fi and USB. But the carriers keep changing network protocols. So I buy one for current use, and switch the data micro-SD from the old into the new. I keep the previous one as a backup, but the ones further back get recycled.

    I keep my hands on all the tin/lead solder I can get. plus silver solder with different melting points. Brazing, I haven’t done since I got a bad case of zinc head about fifty years ago.

  • Richard Thomas

    The other rob, lead based solder is still readily available for home hobbyists. It might still be worth stockpiling it because who knows what idiot rule will be implemented at any time but there’s no need to go rummaging around yard sales (though if that’s your thing, don’t let me stop you). Make sure to get decent stuff though, I got some right rubbish from China before I learned better.

  • Paul Marks

    Lead is indeed a dangerous substance, but it is also a very useful one – and people really should not suck or try to eat electoral circuits. Regulations drawn up on the basis that people will try and eat electrical circuits are bad regulations. Give fair warning “the device contains lead – lead is harmful to health” and then let people buy it. As for waste lead hitting ground water – water supplies do not come from rubbish dumps (at least one hopes not).

    The alternative to lead is GOLD – and people who think cost is not relevant have never been poor.

  • Bruce

    Then, there are the new-fangled “ceramic” car batteries.

    More expensive? Of course. Life span? Who knows?

    Stability? Who knows?

    LONG gone are the days of car batteries actually containing substantial quantities of metallic lead.

    So, as always: FOLLOW THE MONEY.