Data Centre Contamination Analysis

In the vast majority of data centres, most contamination comprises a benign mixture of dust and fibres.  Where the amount of particulate contamination (dust and fibres) is excessive, it can restrict air flow and reduce cooling, but this is easily controlled by good filtration and an effective cleaning regime.

Although rare, there are cases where the contaminating particles themselves have potentially damaging chemical or physical properties which can cause data centre equipment breakdowns. In data centres susceptible to salt-laden breezes, for example, we have found crystalline compounds, which, when the humidity/temperature conditions reach a particular threshold, form an electrically conductive and corrosive film across card surfaces. Other sources of damaging contamination include print room toners, diesel fumes and zinc whiskers. As with most things in a data centre environment, it is a combination of factors (airflow, moisture, component materials) that conspire to cause breakdowns.

Reliable IT Environments uses electron and X-ray emission microscopy and high powered optical imagery, along with, good, old-fashioned chemistry, to determine the chemical nature of the contamination. An analysis can tell us if there is cause for concern and help pinpoint the source of the contamination. If contamination is discovered, Reliable IT Environment technicians can remove it safely and with no downtime. We can also remove contamination from inside racks and from within computers themselves.

If You Suspect a Contamination Problem... 

RITEL offers:

Settled Contamination Sample Analysis.  We send you sample stubs which you load and return to us. (By post)   

Airborne Contamination Analysis/Corrosion Coupon Testing. We send you a prepared set of coupons and instructions on how to install the set at a suitable location. (By post).

On-site Particle CountingWe visit your site, measure and quantify particles according to the ISO Standard 14644-1, and prepare a report.  This can be performed on its own, as part of a clinical clean, as part of a hand-over report, or, as part of an Environmental Audit.

Zinc Whisker Sample Analysis. We send you sampling stubs and you can take samples of the area. We use optical and electron microscope imagery to match the characteristics of the filaments on the fibres to that of zinc whiskers. And, we use an EDX analysis to confirm the elemental composition of the filaments. Although we provide a comprehensive report on all samples, we are also happy to talk to you about the findings and their ramifications.  

Zinc Whisker On-Site Survey. We inspect all plated surfaces, components, inside racks and takes samples where appropriate. While on-site we can also evaluate air flow, position of zinc whisker patches and the overall risk to vulnerable equipment. You’ll receive a report identifying the the location and length of any zinc whiskers, their potential to cause damage, and recommendations. 

How the RITEL Analysis Solved Problems - Case Studies

Excessive ozone levels caused polymer degradation in sound-deadening foam

Sound-deadening foam was degrading rapidly, becoming brittle and shedding particles, and no longer fit for purpose. A site visit identified the problem as excessive ozone concentrations and traced the source to electrostatic dust precipitators. These were overloaded by high levels of particulate contamination due to poor primary filtration. The ozone in turn reacted with the polymers in the sound-deadening foam, converting the top layer of a normally spongy, resilient foam, into a brittle, dusty surface. If left unresolved, the same degradation reaction would have caused reliability problems within servers by degrading insulation polymers used in their construction, for example wire sleeves.

Toxic mix of chloride corrosion and moisture

A client was experiencing failures that were traced to surface conductivity on circuit cards. The circuit card manufacturer’s own laboratory investigation found no fault but noted the presence of sodium chloride. We also found sodium chloride crystals within computer cabinets and, along with zinc chloride crystals, in corrosion products on raised floor components. Experience tells us that sites located up to 25 miles from the sea, can, depending upon the wind direction and other external environmental factors, be subject to aerosols containing salt. We concluded that the zinc was being corroded by chloride ions. The problem was intermittent because it depended on the presence of moisture in the room. When a particular humidity/temperature threshold was reached, the conductivity of the metal-salt crystals increased on the card surface and caused shorting. The fact that the problem was humidity-dependent explained why the manufacturer did not find the fault under their more constant and drier laboratory conditions. We advised the client to ensure that the humidity/temperature in the room remained within a particular range.

Two images.  One image of Zinc Chloride crystals under electron microscope, the other an EDX reading verifying the elemental makeup of the crystal.

Fumes from modelling material formed a salt and corroded tracks on cards

A client was experiencing a number of computer breakdowns. During a site visit, we noticed that all copper pipes, including those in the washroom, were dark brown caused by a film that was later proved to be copper bromide. The client’s business involved making large models out of a type of moulding material that released small amounts of bromine vapour. An EDX analysis confirmed copper bromide crystals were formed by corrosion of the tracks on the circuit cards. The solution was to change the room airflow, so that the fumes from the modelling material were directed away from any IT equipment.



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