12.8: Modern Uses
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Phase diagrams are not just an abstract construction - they have applications in the real world, in deciding which compositions to use.
A major use of eutectics, or near eutectics is in solder. In plumbing, solder is used to join copper pipes together, producing a waterproof seal. For many years a lead-tin alloy has been used, as this has a low melting point, especially at eutectic. However, although a low melting point is sought, it is useful to be able to move the pipes around slightly when they are in place and the solder is solidifying. This means that a eutectic should not be used, as although it has the lowest melting point for the alloy system, it will all solidify at once, leaving little room for error. Instead it is useful to use an alloy whose composition deviates slightly from that of the eutectic, so that the solidification will take longer, making the solder easier to use, despite the higher temperatures, and so resulting in a better join.
Electrical solder uses a similar alloy to join parts of an electronic circuit together. In the case of a standard electrical solder, the eutectic is used, as high temperatures are to be avoided, and it is useful for the solder to solidify all at once.
In more modern soldering applications, such as a ball grid array which joins the chip to some circuit boards, the eutectic is still used. However, there are also situations where a slightly off-eutectic can be used. If there are several processing steps, it is useful to start off with a higher melting point alloy, and only use the eutectic in the final soldering stage. This allows the previous solders to stay in place when the heating takes place on the later stages.
Modern solders have moved away from lead-based alloys, because of environmental considerations, and been replaced with new alloys. In the case of plumbing, there is a tendency to use plastic piping instead of copper piping, so there is less need for solder in this industry. In the electronics industry, lead-tin is being replaced by copper-, tin-, and silver-based systems, which have less environmental problems, but can still be used to create low melting points and flexibility which the lead-tin systems provide. Lots of the modern research on solders relates to alternative systems, and characterising them for use. Part of this characterisation involves the production of phase diagrams to allow good choice of composition for the right properties.
In recent times, it has become necessary to mix several elements in order to improve properties of the materials. It is therefore useful to create phase diagrams which involve three elements, called "ternary" diagrams. These are more complicated than two element "binary" phase diagrams, but allow improved optimisation, and hence can produce better results.