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Heretical Lead

Much of the motivation for Verdant’s solderless Occam process comes from the poorer reliability of solder these days. Solder has always been something of a weak spot for reliability: the phrase “cold solder joint” is practically a household word (at least for handy households). But why are things worse now?

Simple answer: we’ve removed the lead from solder. Now it doesn’t flow as well, it’s more brittle and therefore subject to more cracking, and the higher temperatures required for this solder stress out the components more.

So why did we remove the lead?

Because lead is evil, of course. It made the Romans crazy and it’s bad for kids.

No one disputes that lead is a bad thing for kids. But as to the rest, well, is the science behind lead-free electronics sound?

No, according to Verdant’s Joe Fjelstad. And before you jump to the conclusion that he’s just another capitalist pig-dog out to rape the environment in order to make money, he notes that he was doing Earth Day stuff before there even was an Earth Day. Frankly, listening to his philosophies, it would be hard to confuse him with an anti-environmentalist.

His point is this: straight-up lead isn’t the issue; the issue is “lead sugar,” which is lead acetate. That’s what’s in paint. It wasn’t the lead-lined plumbing that drove the Romans to Looney-Land; it was lead-lined wine vessels, with which acetic acid reacts. The resulting lead sugar makes the wine sweeter. The sweetness is also why kids tend to chew on it. And it’s why you don’t want to put vinegar in lead crystal.

By contrast, the lead in solder isn’t lead acetate. And, by his numbers, all of that lead is less than ½ of 1% of the lead in production, and the amount that gets wasted (which is where the environmental concern arises) is a small percentage of that. So, even if the lead in solder were an issue, it would be a miniscule one.

So what stimulated the lead-free movement, anyway? Were people getting ill from it? That’s usually what spurs this kind of action – and even then, it usually takes a lot of people getting sick before change can be brought about. According to Joe, there have been only two documented cases, one involving “pica” – a condition where people eat minerals like clay directly. A guy was stripping wire with his teeth, and the wire had lead that had rubbed off on it from a bearing in the wire manufacturing line. Joe was aware of one other issue with someone at a plating plant. So, if his statistics are correct, there was no mass health issue (not to trivialize the particular individuals in question).

Joe says he fought the lead-free thing for 9 years; obviously he lost. He seems to view it as an irrational policy not based on any sound science. Lead has been declared an enemy, and that means it must be expunged everywhere. (I know that my wheel weights now can fall off within a few miles of installation since lead has been eliminated from them…) Science often gets in the way of such reactions, especially when we can argue that the children are at risk (whether or not they actually are).

His bottom line: we don’t have better health as a result of this movement; we just have worse electronics. So if you can’t have decent solder, his solution is simply to get rid of solder. Hence Occam.


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