The Complete Guide to Zinc Whiskers

Zinc Whiskers - The Movie

How to Identify Zinc Whiskers

Data centre structural components such as stringers, floor tiles, rack struts are frequently electroplated with zinc.  Most electroplated surfaces produce fine filaments of pure zinc metal which squeeze out through flaws in the surface of the film and form zinc whiskers. Under certain conditions, zinc whiskers have the ability to severely disrupt the function of IT equipment.  


To disrupt IT equipment, the zinc whiskers must be of a minimum length, and, typically, many whiskers must be airborne at the same instant. The distance between whisker source and target has to be short and the packaging technology within circuit cards has to allow whiskers to short-circuit closely spaced conductors. The most dangerous times for whisker-induced damage are during installation activity, particularly near the front of servers and cabinets. Although, with care, even this can be achieved without service disruption.


Suspect a zinc whisker problem if you have an unusually high rate of power supply failure, often of recently replaced units, or you have multiple simultaneous DASD failure leading to data loss.


Detection

You can use this guide to identify zinc whiskers and potential zinc whisker-growing material. We identify zinc whiskers on site by carefully inspecting suspected components under bright light.  We then take samples and use an electron microscope to measure length, and an X-ray Emission spectrum to verify that the whisker composition is zinc and not, for instance, fibreglass strands which may also be present. Only with this information can the magnitude of the problem be gauged.  If zinc whiskers are confirmed, our experienced technicians can remove them safely using a proven technique. We can also remove zinc whiskers from within cabinets. Once the surface is cleaned of whiskers, whiskers may continue to grow, albeit at a reduced rate.  We then recommend a short revisit after six months to a year to check for any regrowth.




An SEM image of several long zinc whiskers on a black background.

Solving clients’ problems

Zinc Whiskers Identification and Removal

A client was planning a major refurbishment and asked for a zinc whiskers survey of a number of sites before the rooms were disrupted. We carefully inspected tiles, stringers, cabinet components (frame, uprights, rails) within a specified distance of the proposed refurbishment and then inspected at sample locations throughout the rest of the room. We found that only the pedestals were electroplated and therefore, presented a risk of growing zinc whiskers.  We suggested that, as the pedestals were already installed, they be cleaned, and then watched and reviewed in a year. We also reported to the client any other anomalies we found in the rooms at the time of inspection.

Client wanted to understand the extent of zinc whiskers in rooms before a major upgrade

A summary listing the different types of structural components and whether or not there are zinc whiskers present.  A summary listing the different types of structural components and whether or not there are zinc whiskers present. A summary listing the different types of structural components and whether or not there are zinc whiskers present.

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RITEL-zinc-whisker-in-air-flow.mp4

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