In 1998, PanAmSat Corp.'s $250-million Galaxy IV communications satellite, which provided service to tens of millions of pagers across North America and thousands of pay-at-the-pump gasoline station machines, was deemed a total loss after two processors failed. The main spacecraft control processor, which governs the satellite's positioning and other functions, failed for an unknown reason, and the backup couldn't be used because tin whiskers had shorted it out a year before.
At least 10 other satellite failures have been blamed on tin whiskers, according to the NASA database.
Over the last two decades, also according to the NASA database, nuclear power plants have been temporarily shut down at least seven times after tin whiskers in the alarm system circuit boards triggered false alarms, alerting managers to threats that didn't exist. There have been no reported injuries.
"There's a real loss of money because the plant is shut down and stays down, and it also presents a situation where workers are taught not to believe the alarms," Leidecker said. "Are you comfortable with that? I am not."
The military also isn't immune. Tin-whisker-related malfunctions have been reported in the radar used aboard fighter jets and in the target-detection system of certain missiles, along with various unspecified problems in other parts of the U.S. military's missile programs.
Most of those failures involve military secrets and are only known because they're revealed in technical forums by defense contractors, which incur heavy repair expenses for malfunctioning tin-whisker-infested equipment and are active in scientific circles looking for a fix that doesn't involve lead.
Tin whisker experts said the industry was working fast to come up with a lead-free solution. So far, other materials have shown to be effective in preventing tin whiskers, but not as powerfully as lead.
One promising remedy is tin-silver-copper solders, said George Galyon, a senior technical staff member at IBM Corp. Galyon, however, noted that lead-free solders often required much higher temperatures, which can warp circuit boards and cause materials to degrade.
Despite the setbacks, he said, the major players know that anti-lead laws give them no choice.
"It's whistling in the wind if you think we're turning this back," he said. "China's full-bent on it; the major markets are into it. The world flipped over in one fell swoop."