Published on Thursday February 17, 2005
The work of Dr. Michel Barsoum and his collaborators was featured in the "Physics Update" section of the February 2005 issue of Physics Today. The mention describes how their work solved a 50+ year-old problem on the growth of spontaneous "whiskers" on some metals with low melting points, such as tin. Whiskers of this type typically cause electrical shorts in electronic components and have been implicated in the failure of heart pacemakers, which have led to recalls, grounding/shorting in avionics radar and relays, and 7 satellite failures. The researchers compared the whisker formation of two identical surfaces-one was exposed to air and the other was stored in an evacuated sealed glass tube for a few months.
Since only the one exposed to air resulted in significant whisker growth, it was concluded that the driving force for whiskers growth was essentially an oxidation reaction where the volume increase due to the formation of the oxide resulted in the extrusion of the whiskers. Their results were published in a paper in Physical Review Letters in November of 2004.