The operator of an electric transit system purchased a large number of tin-plated copper connectors, putting some in service and others in reserve. Later, when some of the reserve connectors were inspected, the metal surfaces were covered with spots consisting of an ash-like powder and the plating material had separated from the substrate in many areas. Several connectors, including some that had been in service, were examined to determine what caused the change. The order stated that the connectors were to be coated with a layer of tin-bismuth (2% Bi) to guard against tin pest, a type of degradation that occurs at low temperatures. Based on the results of the investigation, which included SEM/EDS analysis, inductively coupled plasma spectroscopy, and x-ray diffraction, the metal surfaces contained less than 0.1% Bi and thus were not adequately protected against tin pest, which was confirmed as the failure mechanism in the investigation.
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