The reduction reaction in an electroless nickel plating bath must be controlled so that deposition occurs at a predictable rate and only on the substrate to be plated. To accomplish this, inhibitors, also known as stabilizers, are added. Electroless nickel plating solutions can operate for hours or days without inhibitors, only to decompose unexpectedly. Decomposition is usually initiated by the presence of colloidal, solid particles in the solution. These particles may be the result of the presence of foreign matter (such as dust or blasting media), or may be generated in the bath as the concentration of orthophosphite exceeds its solubility limit. Whatever the source, the large surface area of the particles catalyzes reduction, leading to a self-accelerating chain reaction and decomposition. This is usually preceded by increased hydrogen evolution and the appearance of a finely divided black precipitate throughout the solution. This precipitate consists of nickel and either nickel phosphide or nickel boride.

Spontaneous decomposition can be controlled by adding trace amounts of catalytic inhibitors to the solution. These inhibitors are absorbed on any colloidal particles present in the solution and prevent the reduction of nickel on their surface. Traditionally, inhibitors used with hypophosphite-reduced electroless nickel have been of three types: sulfur compounds, such as thiourea; oxy anions, such as molybdates or iodates; and heavy metals, such as lead, bismuth, tin, or cadmium. More recently, organic compounds, including oleates and some unsaturated acids, have been used for some functional solutions. Organic sulfide, thio compounds, and metals, such as selenium and thallium, are used to inhibit aminoborane- and borohydride-reduced electroless nickel solutions.

The addition of inhibitors can have harmful as well as beneficial effects on the plating bath and its deposit. In small amounts, some inhibitors increase the rate of deposition and/or the brightness of the deposit; others, especially metals or sulfur compounds, increase internal stress and porosity and reduce ductility, thus reducing the ability of the coating to resist corrosion and wear (Ref 2, 3, 5).

The amount of inhibitor used is critical. The presence of only about 1 mg/L (4 mg/gal) of HS- ion completely stops deposition, whereas at a concentration of 0.01 mg/L (0.04 mg/gal), this ion is an effective inhibitor. The effect of lead additions on a hypophosphite-reduced succinate bath at pH 4.6 and 95 °C (205 °F) is shown in Fig. 4 (Ref 3). The tests illustrated in Fig. 4 also showed that baths containing less than 0.1 mg/L (0.4 mg/gal) Pb2+ decomposed rapidly, whereas baths containing higher concentrations were stable. Excess inhibitor absorbs preferentially at sharp edges and corners, resulting in incomplete coverage (edge pull back) and porosity.

Concentration ol Ptf", mg/L

Fig. 4 Effect of lead additions on plating rate in a hypophosphite-reduced succinate-based bath. Bath at 4.6 pH and 95 °C (205 °F). Solutions containing less than 0.1 mg (0.4 mg/gal) Pb2+ were unstable.

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