{1242} revision 10 modified: 07-10-2013 18:34 gmt

We're making parylene electrodes for neural recording, and one critical step is connecting them to recording electronics.

Currently Berkeley uses ACF (anisotropic conductive film) for connection, which is widely used for connecting flex tape to LCD panels, or for connecting driver chips to LCD glass. According to the internet, pitches can be as low as 20um, with pad areas as low as 800um^2. source

However, this does not seem to be a very reliable nor compact process with platinum films on parylene, possibly because ACF bonding relies on raised areas between mated conductors (current design has the Pt recessed into the parylene), and on rigid substrates. ACF consists of springy polymer balls coated in Ni and Au and embedded in a thermoset epoxy resin. The ACF film is put under moderate temperature (180C) and pressure (3mpa, 430psi), which causes the epoxy to cure in a state that leaves the gold/nickel/polymer balls to be compressed between the two conductors. Hence, even if the conductors move slightly due to thermal cycling, the small balls maintain good mechanical and electrical contact. The balls are dispersed sufficiently in the epoxy matrix that there is little to no chance of conduction between adjacent pads.

(Or so I have learned from the internet.) Now, as mentioned, this is an imperfect method for joining Pt on parylene films, possibly because the parylene is so flexible, and the platinum foil is very thin (200-300 nm). Indeed, platinum does not bond very strongly to parylene, hence care must be taken to allow sufficient overlap to prevent water ingress. My proposed solution -- to be tested shortly -- is to use a low-melting temperature metal with strong wetting ability -- such as Field's metal (bismuth, tin, indium, melting point 149F, see http://www.gizmology.net/fusiblemetals.htm) to low-temperature solder the platinum to a carrier board (initially) or to a custom amplifier ASIC (later!). Parylene is stable to 200C (392F), so this should be safe. One worry is that the indium/bismuth will wet the parylene or polyimide, too; however I consider this unlikely due to the difficulty in attaching parylene to any metal.

That said, there must be good reason why ACF is so popular, so perhaps a better ultimate solution is to stiffen the parylene (or ultimately polyimide) substrate so that it can support both the temperature/pressure of ACF bonding and the stress of a continued electrical/mechanical bond to polyimide fan-out board or ASIC. It may also be possible to gold or nickel electroplate the connector pads to be slightly raised instead of recessed.


Update: ACF bond to rigid 1/2 oz copper, 4mil trace / space connector (3mil trace/space board):

Note that the copper traces are raised, and the parylene is stretched over the uneven surface (this is much easier to see with the stereo microscope). To the left of the image, the ACF paste has been sqeezed out from between the FR4 and parylene. Also note that the platinum can make potential contact with vias in the PCB.


Update 7/2: Fields metal (mentioned above) does stick to platinum reasonably well, but it also sticks to parylene (somewhat), and glass (exceptionally well!). In fact, I had a difficult time removing traces of field's metal from the Pyrex beakers that I was melting the metal with. These beakers were filled with boiling water, which may have been the problem.

When I added flux (Kester flux-pen 951 No-clean MSDS), the metal became noticeably more shiny, and the contact angle increased on the borosilicate glass (e.g. looked more like mercury); this leads me to believe that it is not the metal itself that attaches to glass, but rather oxides of indium and bismuth. Kester 951 flux consists of:

  • 2-propanol 15% (as a denaturing agent) boiling point 82.6C
  • Ethanol 73% (solvent) boiling point 78.3C
  • Butyl Acetate 7% boiling point 127C, flash point 27C
  • Methanol <3% b.p. 64.7C
  • Carboxylic acids < 3% -- proton donors? formic or oxalic acid?
  • Surfacants < 1% -- ?
Total boiling point is 173F.

After coating the parylene/platinum sample with flux, I raised the field's metal to the flux activation point, which released some smoke and left brown organic residues on the bottom of the glass dish. Then I dipped the parylene probe into the molten metal, causing the flux again to be activated, and partially wetting the platinum contacts. The figure below shows the result:

Note the incomplete wetting, all the white solids left from the process, and how the field's metal caused the platinum to delaminate from the parylene when the cable was (accidentally) flexed. Tests with platinum foil revealed that the metal bond was not actually that strong, significantly weaker than that made with a flux-core SnPb solder. also, I'm not sure of the activation temperature of this flux, and think I may have overheated the parylene.


Update 7/10:

Am considering electrodeless Ni / Pt / Au deposition, which occurs in aqueous solution, hence at much lower temperatures than e-beam evaporation Electrodeless Ni ref. On polyimide substrates, there is extensive literature describing how to activate the surface for plating: Polyimides and Other High Temperature Polymers: Synthesis ..., Volume 4. Parylene would likely need a different possibly more aggressive treatment, as it does not have imide bonds to open.

Furthermore, if the parylene / polyimide surface is *not* activated, the electrodeless plating could be specific to the exposed electrode and contact sites, which could help to solve the connector issue by strengthening & thickening the contact areas. The second fairly obvious solution is to planarize the contact site on the PCB, too, as seen above. ACF bonds can be quite reliable; last night I took apart (and successfully re-assembled) my 32" Samsung LCD monitor, and none of the flex-on-glass or chip-on-flex binds failed (despite my clumsy hands!).