RoHS Compliant Surface Finishes – Electroless Gold over Nickel

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Introduction to Electroless Gold-Nickel Plating

Electroless gold-nickel (ENIG) plating is a popular surface finish used in the electronics industry for printed circuit boards (PCBs) and other components. This RoHS compliant surface finish offers several advantages over other finishes, making it an attractive choice for many applications.

What is Electroless Gold-Nickel Plating?

Electroless nickel immersion gold (ENIG) is a two-layer metallic coating consisting of a thin layer of gold over a thicker layer of nickel. The nickel layer is typically 3-6 μm thick and provides a barrier between the copper substrate and the gold layer, preventing diffusion of the copper into the gold. The gold layer is usually 0.05-0.2 μm thick and provides excellent solderability, electrical conductivity, and corrosion resistance.

The term “electroless” refers to the fact that the plating process does not require an external electrical current. Instead, the nickel and gold are deposited through an autocatalytic chemical reaction. This allows for a more uniform coating, even on complex geometries and in hard-to-reach areas.

Advantages of Electroless Gold-Nickel Plating

ENIG offers several key benefits compared to other surface finishes:

  1. RoHS compliance: ENIG is free of lead and other hazardous substances restricted by the RoHS directive, making it a suitable choice for environmentally-friendly electronics.

  2. Excellent solderability: The thin gold layer provides superior wettability and solderability, ensuring reliable solder joints.

  3. Corrosion resistance: The nickel layer acts as a barrier, protecting the copper substrate from oxidation and corrosion.

  4. Flat surface: ENIG produces a flat, planar surface, which is ideal for fine-pitch components and wire bonding.

  5. Extended shelf life: The gold layer prevents the nickel from oxidizing, allowing ENIG-plated parts to be stored for longer periods without degradation.

  6. Compatibility: ENIG is compatible with a wide range of solder alloys and fluxes, making it versatile for various assembly processes.

The ENIG Plating Process

The electroless gold-nickel plating process involves several steps to ensure a high-quality, uniform coating.

Surface Preparation

Before plating, the copper substrate must be thoroughly cleaned to remove any contaminants, oxides, or organic residues. This typically involves a series of cleaning steps, such as:

  1. Alkaline cleaning to remove organic contaminants
  2. Micro-etching to remove surface oxides and roughen the surface for better adhesion
  3. Acid dipping to remove any remaining oxides and activate the surface

Electroless Nickel Plating

Once the surface is prepared, the part is immersed in an electroless nickel plating bath. The bath contains a nickel salt (usually nickel sulfate), a reducing agent (such as sodium hypophosphite), and various complexing agents and stabilizers.

The reducing agent reacts with the nickel ions, causing them to deposit onto the copper surface. The reaction is autocatalytic, meaning that the deposited nickel acts as a catalyst for further deposition. This allows the nickel to continue depositing until the desired thickness is achieved.

The nickel layer is typically 3-6 μm thick and contains a small amount of phosphorus (usually 7-11%) co-deposited with the nickel. The phosphorus content helps to improve the corrosion resistance and mechanical properties of the coating.

Immersion Gold Plating

After the electroless nickel plating, the part is rinsed and then immersed in an immersion gold plating bath. The gold bath contains a gold salt (usually potassium gold cyanide), a complexing agent, and a pH regulator.

The immersion gold process is a displacement reaction, where the gold ions in the solution displace some of the nickel atoms on the surface. This results in a thin, uniform layer of gold (typically 0.05-0.2 μm thick) deposited over the nickel.

The gold layer serves several purposes:
1. It provides excellent solderability and wettability.
2. It prevents the nickel layer from oxidizing, extending the shelf life of the plated parts.
3. It enhances the electrical conductivity and corrosion resistance of the coating.

Post-Plating Treatments

After the gold plating, the parts are rinsed and dried. In some cases, additional post-plating treatments may be applied, such as:

  1. Heat treatment to improve the adhesion and mechanical properties of the coating
  2. Anti-tarnish treatment to prevent staining or discoloration of the gold layer
  3. Topcoat application to provide additional protection or enhance the appearance of the coating

Quality Control and Testing

To ensure the quality and reliability of ENIG-plated parts, various tests and inspections are performed throughout the plating process and on the finished products.

Thickness Measurement

The thickness of the nickel and gold layers is critical to the performance of the ENIG coating. The nickel layer must be thick enough to provide a sufficient barrier against copper diffusion, while the gold layer must be thin enough to maintain good solderability and prevent embrittlement of the solder joint.

The thickness of the layers is typically measured using non-destructive methods, such as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) or beta backscatter. These techniques allow for precise measurement of the coating thickness without damaging the part.

Layer Typical Thickness Range
Nickel 3-6 μm
Gold 0.05-0.2 μm

Adhesion Testing

The adhesion of the ENIG coating to the copper substrate is critical to the reliability of the plated part. Poor adhesion can lead to delamination, blistering, or peeling of the coating during assembly or in service.

Adhesion is typically tested using the tape test method (IPC-TM-650 2.4.1). In this test, a piece of pressure-sensitive tape is applied to the plated surface and then peeled off at a 90° angle. The amount of coating removed by the tape is visually inspected and rated on a scale of 0-5, with 5 being no removal and 0 being complete removal.

Solderability Testing

The solderability of ENIG-plated parts is essential for ensuring reliable solder joints during assembly. Solderability is typically tested using the Wetting Balance method (IPC J-STD-003) or the dip-and-look method (IPC J-STD-002).

In the wetting balance test, a sample is dipped into a solder bath, and the force exerted on the sample by the molten solder is measured. This force is related to the wetting angle and the speed at which the solder wets the surface. A higher force indicates better solderability.

In the dip-and-look test, a sample is dipped into a solder bath and then visually inspected for the extent and quality of solder coverage. The coverage is rated on a scale of 0-100%, with higher coverage indicating better solderability.

Porosity Testing

Porosity in the nickel layer can allow the underlying copper to diffuse through the coating and reach the surface, leading to corrosion and reduced solderability. Porosity is typically tested using the nitric acid vapor test (IPC-TM-650 2.3.13).

In this test, a sample is exposed to nitric acid vapor for a specified time. If there are pores in the nickel layer, the copper will react with the nitric acid, forming visible copper nitrate crystals on the surface. The presence and extent of these crystals indicate the level of porosity in the coating.

Troubleshooting Common ENIG Issues

While ENIG is a reliable and robust surface finish, various issues can arise during the plating process or in service. Some common problems and their causes include:

  1. Black pad: This is a phenomenon where the nickel layer becomes oxidized and corroded, leading to poor solderability and weak solder joints. Black pad can be caused by excessive porosity in the nickel layer, contamination of the plating baths, or exposure to corrosive environments.

  2. Nickel corrosion: If the gold layer is too thin or porous, the underlying nickel can be exposed to the environment and corrode. This can lead to reduced solderability and reliability. Nickel corrosion can be caused by insufficient gold thickness, porosity in the gold layer, or exposure to corrosive environments.

  3. Poor adhesion: If the copper surface is not properly prepared before plating, or if there are contaminants in the plating baths, the ENIG coating may not adhere well to the substrate. This can lead to delamination, blistering, or peeling of the coating. Poor adhesion can be caused by insufficient cleaning, surface roughness, or contamination.

  4. Gold Embrittlement: If the gold layer is too thick (>0.5 μm), it can lead to embrittlement of the solder joint, causing it to crack under stress. Gold embrittlement can be caused by excessive gold thickness or improper process control during plating.

To prevent these issues, it is essential to maintain strict process control during plating, use high-quality plating chemicals, and perform regular maintenance and testing of the plating baths. Proper surface preparation, thickness control, and post-plating treatments can also help to ensure the quality and reliability of ENIG-plated parts.

Environmental and Health Considerations

While ENIG is a RoHS-compliant surface finish, there are still some environmental and health considerations to keep in mind during the plating process.

Waste Management

The electroless nickel and immersion gold plating processes generate various waste streams, including spent plating baths, rinse waters, and sludges. These waste streams can contain heavy metals (such as nickel and gold), complexing agents, and other chemicals that can be harmful to the environment if not properly treated and disposed of.

To minimize the environmental impact of ENIG plating, it is important to implement proper waste management practices, such as:

  1. Treating and recycling spent plating baths to recover valuable metals and reduce the volume of waste
  2. Neutralizing and treating rinse waters before discharge to remove harmful chemicals and meet local environmental regulations
  3. Collecting and properly disposing of sludges and other solid wastes generated during plating

Worker Safety

The chemicals used in ENIG plating can also pose health risks to workers if not handled properly. Some potential hazards include:

  1. Exposure to nickel salts, which can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, and respiratory issues
  2. Exposure to cyanide compounds used in the gold plating bath, which can be toxic if inhaled or ingested
  3. Exposure to acids and alkalis used in the cleaning and surface preparation steps, which can cause burns and respiratory irritation

To protect workers, it is important to implement proper safety measures, such as:

  1. Providing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, goggles, and respirators
  2. Installing proper ventilation and fume extraction systems to minimize exposure to harmful vapors and mists
  3. Providing regular safety training and supervision to ensure that workers follow proper handling and disposal procedures

By implementing proper waste management and worker safety practices, the environmental and health risks associated with ENIG plating can be minimized, making it a sustainable and responsible choice for electronics manufacturing.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the typical thickness of the nickel and gold layers in ENIG plating?

The nickel layer is typically 3-6 μm thick, while the gold layer is usually 0.05-0.2 μm thick. The specific thicknesses can be adjusted based on the requirements of the application.

2. How does ENIG compare to other surface finishes, such as HASL or OSP?

ENIG offers several advantages over other surface finishes, such as better solderability, flatter surfaces, and longer shelf life compared to HASL (hot air solder leveling) and OSP (organic solderability preservative). However, ENIG is also more expensive and complex to apply than these other finishes.

3. Can ENIG be used for wire bonding applications?

Yes, ENIG is suitable for wire bonding due to its flat surface and good bondability. The gold layer provides a compatible surface for thermosonic or ultrasonic bonding of gold or aluminum wires.

4. How long can ENIG-plated parts be stored before assembly?

ENIG-plated parts can typically be stored for 12 months or more before assembly, depending on the storage conditions and the quality of the plating. The gold layer helps to prevent oxidation and degradation of the nickel surface, extending the shelf life compared to other finishes.

5. Are there any restrictions on the use of ENIG in certain applications?

ENIG is generally suitable for most electronics applications, but there may be some restrictions in high-reliability or harsh environment applications. For example, in some aerospace or military applications, the use of gold may be restricted due to concerns about embrittlement or intermetallic formation. In these cases, other surface finishes, such as electroless nickel/electroless palladium/immersion gold (ENEPIG), may be specified instead.


Electroless nickel immersion gold (ENIG) is a popular and reliable surface finish for printed circuit boards and other electronics components. Its RoHS compliance, excellent solderability, flat surface, and long shelf life make it an attractive choice for a wide range of applications.

However, achieving a high-quality ENIG finish requires careful process control and regular testing to ensure that the coating meets the required specifications and performance criteria. Proper waste management and worker safety practices are also essential to minimize the environmental and health risks associated with the plating process.

By understanding the benefits, limitations, and best practices for ENIG plating, electronics manufacturers can make informed decisions about when and how to use this versatile surface finish to achieve the best results for their products.