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PCB Formulated For Reliability
Achieving high reliability for a high-frequency circuit or system starts with the printed circuit board (PCB). The PCB material must deliver consistent performance over time and changing conditions, such as temperature. As explained in the previous Blog (part one of this two-part series), it is possible to spot PCB materials that are “built to last” by assessing a number of their key performance parameters, such as coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE). In fact, PCB materials such as Rogers RO4835™ laminates can be engineered for high reliability through a careful combination of material components resulting in specific performance characteristics.
RO4835 laminates are thermoset materials like FR-4. They are part of Rogers RO4000® family of PCB materials and can be processed with the standard epoxy/glass methods used with low-cost FR-4 materials. RO4835 laminates exhibit a typical dielectric constant of 3.48 in the z direction at 10 GHz with low dissipation factor of 0.0037 in the z direction at 10 GHz. They offer x- and y-direction CTEs of 11 and 9 ppm/°C, respectively, that are relatively compatible with the 17 ppm/°C CTE of copper; the CTE is typically 26 ppm/°C in the z direction. RO4835 laminates have a glass transition temperature (Tg) of greater than +280°C to handle effects of high-temperature circuit processing.
As detailed in the previous Blog, a number of material parameters can point to potential reliability issues, including a material’s CTE, its resistance to oxidation, and its heat- and power-handling capabilities. The CTE characteristics of RO4835 laminates represent stable mechanical and electrical behavior at higher power levels and across wide temperature ranges. In addition, the material has been engineered to be resistant to the effects of oxidation. In general, the material has been formulated for demanding applications where long-term reliability is a concern.
Oxidation can impact all thermoset laminate materials over time and at elevated temperatures. It is essentially caused by the absorption of oxygen atoms to form a carbonyl group within the material, leading to small increases in its dielectric constant and dissipation factor which are not reversible. The electrical impact of oxidation can also be affected by elevated temperatures. Physically, oxidation can also result in a “darkening” effect on the exposed dielectric surfaces of the laminate. The oxidation begins on the surface and slowly penetrates into the dielectric as the oxygen diffuses through the material. Copper metallization on a laminate greatly reduces the effect of oxidation on the dielectric material beneath the copper.
Where oxidation may be a concern, it might be necessary to store a circuit in an oxygen-free environment or enclosure, such as in a vacuum or nitrogen environment. Where such an option may not be available, RO4835 laminates are less affected by oxidation than most high-frequency circuit materials. RO4835 laminates were developed to combat the effects of oxidation and, in so doing, to promote better long-term reliability. They are composites formed of fused silica and woven glass fabric. They are bound with a highly cross-linked hydrocarbon polymer matrix and include an anti-oxidant additive, to be more oxidant resistant than traditional thermoset PCB materials. The RO4835 laminates provide electrical and mechanical properties quite similar to those of Rogers RO4350B™ laminates, with heightened resistance to oxidation because of the anti-oxidant additive.
Elevated temperatures are a threat to any PCB’s long-term reliability, especially when coupled with the need to handle high RF/microwave power levels. When subjected to the combination of high temperatures and high RF/microwave power levels, it is not just the amount of material expansion (as characterized by the CTE) but the rates of expansion (and contraction) of the different materials comprising a PCB that can result in stress junctions, such as between copper conductors and dielectric materials. Ideally, manufacturing processes support optimum thermal management of a PCB, such as proper implementation of plated through holes (PTHs). A through hole in a PCB with poor quality copper plating, for example, can result in undue stress on that portion of the circuit at elevated temperatures. Similarly, manufacturing flaws such as starved thermal viaholes can lead to hot spots and stress points on a PCB.
Proper thermal management of a PCB can also help control the effects of temperature swings on a laminate’s electrical performance. For example, a laminate’s variations in dielectric constant as a function of temperature are defined by a parameter called the thermal coefficient of dielectric constant, and typically evidenced as variations in the impedance of transmission lines. The value of the parameter is different for each laminate, but the amount of change in the dielectric constant due to this effect can be minimized by properly dissipating heat from a PCB.
Of course, starting with a circuit material that is designed for wide temperature ranges can help overcome even manufacturing/production shortcomings such as these. For applications where it may be necessary to handle both higher power levels and operating temperatures, the RO4835 laminates are based on dielectric material with CTE values in the x and y dimensions that are very closely matched to that of copper, to minimize stress junctions at elevated operating temperatures and power levels. In addition, the CTE through the thickness of the material (the z axis) is engineered for stable and reliable PTH quality, even when subjected to elevated thermal conditions.
In fact, the RO4000 family of materials, including RO4350B laminates, is formulated to deliver consistent performance even under more challenging operating conditions, such as high temperatures and power levels. The RO4000 series circuit materials feature low dielectric losses as well as high Tg, to maintain stable mechanical and electrical characteristics over a wide range of material processing temperatures. They are also characterized by excellent thermal conductivity, a parameter which indicates a circuit material’s effectiveness in dissipating heat.
The RO4000 series laminates are affected by oxidation, like all thermoset materials and unlike PTFE materials. But RO4000 materials, such as RO4835 laminates, are RoHS compliant and do not require special viahole preparation like PTFE materials. The RO4000 circuit materials can be processed using standard FR-4 production techniques and, in the case of RO4835 laminates, were formulated for minimal effects of oxidation and with thermal and mechanical properties which support excellent long-term reliability.
Do you have a design or fabrication question? John Coonrod and Joe Davis are available to help. Log in to the Rogers Technology Support Hub and “Ask an Engineer” today.