PCB makers struggle with conflicting environmental and safety regulations

03 February 2016

It looks like 2016 will be very positive for the electronics industry with estimated global growth rates set to increase.

Nonetheless, many companies in the electronics industry are less than optimistic. One of the primary reasons is the global instability and environmental regulations. 

Taking a global perspective, the electronics industry is seeing at least six different regulatory conflicts that will cause consternation among PCB makers. 

These new rules are raising costs and imposing hidden taxes upon businesses, creating trade barriers, increasing commercial risks, stifling innovation and creating an aura of uncertainty. 

HCFC-225 phase-out

The phase-out of the last major ozone-depleting solvent, HCFC-225, finally has begun. This is going to be good for the planet but tough for companies with complex cleaning requirements. 

Speaking globally, this policy was both prudent and practical: HCFC-225 has an ozone-depleting impact only 1/25th of the benchmark fluid, CFC-113. Operationally, HCFC-225 is also a very good cleaner: it is nonflammable, fast-drying, VOC-exempt, and has a relatively low global warming potential. For these reasons many companies migrated to it from older cleaners, which helped minimise the damage to the ozone layer. Now, as HCFC-225 is itself phased-out, most companies will find the fastest and easiest transition to be to move to another nonflammable, solvent-based product usually to HFC, HFE and HFO solvent technologies.

While it has been a long-time coming, this phase-out is important. One expert estimates that the reduction in ozone damage and reduced global warming impact may be “the equivalent of removing the climate emissions from 70 million U.S. passenger cars for the next 30 years.” The main question is what cleaning process should companies switch to?

Propellant phase-out in Japan

Another source of concern in Japan, Australia and Europe are uncoordinated efforts to stem global warming. As one of the first steps, Japan is making an effort to phase-out a popular industrial propellant, called HFC-134a. This liquid is widely used as a duster and as a propellant for industrial aerosols because of its low toxicity and nonflammable properties. For years, HFC-134a was the optimum replacement for ozone-depleting CFC and HCFC propellants. Yet, while using HFC-134a is better than using the old-style fluids, it still contributes to global warming.

The aerosol regulatory agency in Japan has been taking the lead in this project and this body insists that HFCs have reached the end of their useful life because good alternatives are available. The agency, which regulates the importation of aerosols into Japan and tests them for safety, has prudently concluded that it will no longer accept products propelled by HFC-134a. As new products are introduced by the industry, they will be required to use the newer ingredients that do not contribute to global warming.

The leading contender for industrial aerosol propellants, such as those used in aerosols for cleaning circuit boards, appears to be a new synthetic molecule made by Honeywell. Their commercialisation of HFO-1234z has the potential to replace HFC-134a in many applications. It offers similar pressures, excellent toxicity scores and nonflammable performance. Although the costs are somewhat higher, Honeywell expects prices to drop as production efficiencies increase. Overall, the HFO innovation may become the long-term winner for critical cleaning products. 

Carbon taxes 

Many countries are looking at economic incentives, like carbon taxes, to encourage the move to “green” technologies. Australia has imposed unilaterally a series of ‘carbon taxes’ on many industrial products, including HFC-based solvents and aerosols. The laudable goal is to minimise emissions into the atmosphere. Yet, as so often happens, there are unexpected repercussions from this policy.

The situation is a classic case of “unintended consequences.” Until 2012, companies had significant success marketing HFC solvents in Australia. However, the heavy-handed carbon tax has rendered most of these low-energy alternatives unaffordable. With the carbon tax, a product that was priced at A$8,000 now costs end-users almost A$12,000. 

Unhappily, this policy will not protect the environment. One of the main contributors to global warming is the burning of coal to produce electricity. Aqueous cleaning systems for PCBs use vast quantities of electricity to heat, pump, dry and purify the water in the cleaning system. The coal burned to create this electricity is far more harmful in terms of global warming than the solvent alternatives.

Some alternatives are available. For example, MicroCare Corp. has commercialised low-GWP aerosols used for benchtop cleaning of PCBs; these can be used in Europe, Japan and Australia. Companies also can now take advantage of modern, safe and affordable cleaning fluids while also protecting the environment. However, these alternatives cannot replace the full spectrum of cleaning choices currently rendered unaffordable in Australia.

Energy costs

Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in northeast Japan, energy supplies and costs in Japan have been challenged. Immediately after Fukushima, Germany also began shuttering nuclear power plants and is attempting to switch to renewables, raising energy costs in Germany to punishing levels. The net result has been an instant increase in carbon emissions from these countries due to the burning of oil and gas to generate electricity. This makes aqueous cleaning of PCBs a dubious choice in those countries. Water cleaning is not, on the face of it, a bad idea. Even today for non-critical applications it can work quite nicely. Intuitively, water also seems like it would be an environmentally-friendly option. However, there are a number of reasons why the advantages do not always materialise as expected.

The unspoken secret lurking behind aqueous cleaning is the enormous energy costs. With energy costs in Japan, Germany and other parts of Asia sometimes ten times higher than in the US, the costs of “green” aqueous cleaning make it a dubious choice. In addition, one of the greatest contributors to global warming is the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity; so aqueous cleaning is taking a double-hit. The manner in which industry will resolve this issue is still unclear.

REACH, GHS and local implementations

Another public policy trend that attempts to make people safer but may have the reverse effect is evolving regulations concerning the ‘Global Harmonised Shipping’ procedures. In theory, if there was just one set of hazardous product labels and shipping regulations around the world, it should eliminate confusion and make shipping processes easier and safer. Unhappily, most countries are developing local implementations of the GHS system that do not exactly match the international template. 

For example, a simple aerosol product sold in the USA would require a completely separate safety label in Europe, and still a different one in China, because the GHS implementations in those regions are all non-standard. In addition, some of the safety warnings on the cans actually contradict each other, because local safety definitions are non-standard. 

The REACH regulations in Europe are particularly perplexing. This sweeping set of rules is attempting to define a new paradigm: a chemical must be proven to be safe before it can be imported into Europe. The burden of proof lies on the importer; the judge-and-jury are the REACH regulators. They can demand almost any level of testing to make sure a chemical is safe. Yet the costs and delays caused by the lab testing for new products can be so expensive and open-ended that new chemical products simply will not be introduced into Europe. The result of this may be the demise of many environmentally-progressive chemical innovations that will ultimately force companies to move their production off-shore.

The battle over ‘trans’

As a general policy, cleaning with solvents is a remarkable process. Modern solvents have excellent cleaning performance, broad materials compatibility and superior toxicity profiles. In most parts of the world, companies find the fastest and easiest cleaning answers in a nonflammable, solvent-based product. Even so, this may not be easy.

Robert Lee, of The Chemours Company notes that companies that could go no-clean went no-clean long ago. Companies that could use water are there already. There are complex reasons why companies have stuck with nonflammable solvents, and finding drop-in substitutes will not be a walk in the park.

However, Japan and some other countries have a long-standing ban on the use of a particular chemical additive, trans-dichloroethylene (often simply called “trans”) which is used to kick up the cleaning horsepower of the mild nonflammable solvents. The problem apparently is a concern over the toxicity of one of the “trans” isomers, or atomic arrangements, which was a problem a year ago when “trans” was a new formulation. Today, the troubling isomer is eliminated during the manufacturing process, leaving a very strong and safe solvent ingredient. 

“Trans” is widely used in nonflammable solvents because of its excellent cleaning capabilities. These include Novec HFE cleaners, Chemours HFC-based cleaners and an HFO also offered by Chemours. The HFO option is the newest choice on the market, and it represents a very attractive option because it has the lowest global warming impact of any choice on the market. The Chemours HFO offering, which is actually made in Japan, looks to be the optimal drop-in replacement for HCFC-225 products, requiring only modest changes to temperature settings and cycle times in a cleaning system. However it will not be commercially available in Japan because it requires “trans.”

In short, the reckless ban on “trans” based solvents and the high costs of water cleaning may mean that there are no affordable and safe cleaning alternatives open to many companies in the electronics industry. The result may be a migration of electronics production and the subsequent cleaning to areas with less-restrictive policies.

The precision cleaning industry today is a source of rapid and sophisticated innovation, helping to make printed circuit boards more powerful and reliable. Regulators should be careful they do not accidentally regulate away safe and cost-effective cleaning choices that are essential to making high quality PCBs in today’s world. 

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