Electromigration Concerns Grow In Advanced Packages

Higher density, heat, and more materials make it harder to ensure reliability.


The incessant demand for more speed in chips requires forcing more energy through ever-smaller devices, increasing current density and threatening long-term chip reliability. While this problem is well understood, it’s becoming more difficult to contain in leading-edge designs.

Of particular concern is electromigration, which is becoming more troublesome in advanced packages with multiple chiplets, where various bonding and interconnect schemes create abrupt changes in materials and geometries. For example, electrons may travel from a copper trace to a solder bump of SAC (tin-silver-copper), then to an underbump metal based on nickel, and finally to an interposer copper pad. That, in turn, can cause atoms to shift, resulting in failures in solder joints or in copper redistribution layers in high-density fan-out packages.

“From an electromigration perspective, advanced packaging causes increased packaging density, reduced packaging size, and the dimensions of interconnects to shrink, so the current density is now in close proximity to the maximum current density limit per EM design rules,” said Dermott Lynch, director of technical product management in Synopsys‘ EDA Group.

Any additional stresses the package may be subjected to during assembly and use, whether mechanical or thermal, also can help induce or accelerate electromigration. “Electromigration, in general, gets worse due to temperature and stress, both of which advanced packaging increases,” said Lynch. “Electromigration is also cumulative, so essentially it integrates all the temperature highs and stress over the lifetime until an interconnect breaks down or shorts. Larger processing temperature and operation temperature will make it worse, but it also depends on time under that temperature.”

In fact, managing thermal pathways is perhaps the greatest challenge associated the movement toward the ultimate package, a 3D-IC. “Electromigration is very temperature-sensitive,” said Marc Swinnen, director of product marketing in Ansys’ Semiconductor Division. “Depending on your thermal map, your power integrity will have to adapt to the local temperature profile that you have. So when you look at a chip, you can calculate how much power the chip is putting out, but you cannot tell how hot the chip will get because ‘it depends.’ Is it sitting on a cold plate or sitting in the sun in the Sahara? System concerns come in, and multi-physics modeling is important to understanding these co-dependent effects.”

Thermal engineering also means moving heat away from the most vulnerable points of failure, such as solder bumps. “Effective thermal management is essential for bump reliability,” said Curtis Zwenger, vice president of engineering and technical marketing at Amkor. “Engineers are incorporating thermal enhancement techniques, such as the use of thermal interface materials and advanced heat dissipation solutions, to ensure that bumps are not subjected to excessive temperature-related stresses.”

Zwenger noted that engineers are looking into new materials, while optimizing the use of existing materials to minimize the possibility of electromigration. “Semiconductor packaging engineers are implementing a range of measures to enhance bump reliability and maximize bump yield. These strategies include new materials for solder bumps and underbump metallization, optimizing bump size, pitch and shape for reliability, advanced process control methods to control variability and maximize yield, and simulating and modeling reliability.”

What is electromigration?
Electromigration is the mass transport of metal atoms caused by the electron wind from current flowing through a conductor, typically copper. When current density is high enough, metal will diffuse in the direction of current flow, creating tiny hillocks downstream and leaving behind vacancies or voids. With enough electromigration, failures occur due to severe line thinning, causing opens, or due to hillocks that bridge adjacent lines, causing short circuits.

Electromigration is a diffusion-controlled mechanism that can take three forms — bulk, grain boundary, or surface diffusion, depending on the metal. Aluminum migrates by grain boundary diffusion whereas copper migrates on the surface or at its grain boundaries.

For most of the semiconductor industry’s history, electromigration was primarily an on-chip concern, but on-chip EM is largely under control by reliability engineers. But with the scaling and rapid developments in advanced packaging — implementing TSVs, fan-out packaging with redistribution layers, and copper pillar bumps — electromigration has emerged as a major threat at the package level. Current flowing through the solder bump causes joule heating, and heat from other parts of the package may also dissipate through the solder bumps. EM can become an issue for solder joint connections between chip and interposer, or chip and PCB, as well as in RDLs. Solder joint failures typically manifest as voids or cracks.

Fig. 1: Electromigration can create short circuits between two interconnects through the development of hillocks, or an open circuit through the creation of voids in interconnect. Source: Ansys

Fig. 1: Electromigration can create short circuits between two interconnects through the development of hillocks, or an open circuit through the creation of voids in interconnect. Source: Ansys

Electromigration progresses more quickly at higher temperatures, at higher currents, under greater mechanical stress and in the presence of defects or impurities in the metal. Black’s equation describes an interconnect’s mean time-to-failure with respect to its temperature, current density and the activation energy needed to dislodge a metal atom as:

Black's equation

J is the current density, k is Boltzmann’s constant, T is temperature, Ea is the activation energy, and N is a scaling factor that depends on the metal’s properties. Black’s equation is useful because it easily shows how shorter, wider interconnects will tend to have longer MTTF. In addition, electromigration time-to-failure very strongly depends on the interconnect’s temperature. That temperature is primarily the result of the chip’s environmental temperature, self-heating of the conductor caused by current flow, the heat from neighboring interconnects or transistors, and the thermal conductivity of the surrounding material.

It is also important to note that electromigration is a runaway process. As current density and/or temperature increases, electromigration increases, which raises current density, causing more metal to migrate in a destructive feedback loop.

EM failure modes and allowable current density
In the case of copper redistribution layers in polyimide material, as current flows through the RDL, heat accumulates in the conductor due to Joule heating generation, which can degrade performance. As the required current density and Joule heating temperature is increasing in the fine-line Cu RDL structures (<5nm lines and spaces), self-heating is considered a key factor in the reliability of high-density fan out packages.

JiHye Kwon, senior manager of R&D at Amkor, recently used EM testing and Black’s equation to determine the electromigration failure mechanisms for a given RDL stack and high-density fan-out package with 2µm or 10µm wide RDL layers, 1,000µm long. [1]

High density fan-out is an emerging technology, as it features more aggressive scaling than wafer level fan-out packages. The three layers of copper RDL (3µm thick with Ta/Cu seed) were fabricated followed by polyimide fill, copper pillar deposition, die attach, and overmold. Kwon’s team tested both 2 and 10µm RDL at different current densities and temperatures until resistance increased by 100% (EM failure), but the maximum allowed current density corresponded with a 20% resistance increase. The failure modes occurred in two stages, first by void nucleation and growth and second with copper reduction and oxidation. The study yielded Ea and current density exponent values that can be useful in future designs of RDLs.

Meanwhile, a team of researchers from ASE recently demonstrated how susceptibility to electromigration is determined on copper pillar interconnects in flip chip quad flat no-lead (FCQFN) for high-power automotive applications. The multi-layered copper pillar bumps with a Cu/Ni/Sn1.8Ag configuration were bonded to a silver-plated copper leadframe and tested under extreme EM conditions of 10 kA/cm2 current density and temperatures of 150°C, 160°C and 180°C, while taking in-situ resistance measurements. [2] The EM failures corresponded with rapid rises in electrical resistance that corresponded with the formation of intermetallic compounds and voids at the Cu/solder interfaces. The team built an EM prediction model of interconnects based on a Black-type EM equation, following the JEDEC standard with five test conditions.

After the statistic calculation from the lifetime of samples, the ASE team determined activation energy of Cu pillar interconnects in the FCQFN package (1.12 ± 0.03 eV). The maximum current of the Cu pillar interconnects allowable lasting 10 years at a 105°C operating temperature at a 0.1% failure rate was larger than 2A for the FCQFN Cu pillar structure. “The FCQFN package has great potential in terms of its excellent anti-EM performance for future high-power applications,” the article said.

Designing/manufacturing for EM resiliency
Building electromigration resilience into advanced devices begins with using only EM-compliant linewidths in circuit designs based on the current density and heat profile that the interconnects will experience during operation over the lifetime of the device. Electromigration mitigation also requires process and materials engineering to ensure durability, for instance, of copper pillar bumps under BGA packages. It also calls for an optimized assembly process window and tight process control to prevent tiny violations of design rules that can later precipitate as EM failures.

As the industry makes its way toward true 3D packages, and eventually 3D-ICs, it seems clear that modeling and simulation will play an increasing role in determining many of the guard rails for manufacturing and assembly before manufacturing and assembly even begins. “Reliability modeling and simulation tools are being used to better understand the reliability of bump structures. This proactive approach helps in identifying potential issues before they arise, enabling engineers to implement preventive measures,” said Zwenger.

Modeling and simulation at the system level also will be essential to understanding the complex interplay between reliability mechanisms with thermal and mechanical stress in multi-chiplet systems during operation.

“Electromigration for stacked die is challenging,” said Synopsys’ Lynch. “Localized, die-to-die workloads cause repetitive current flow in specific areas. This generates local heat, increasing EM resulting in wire degradation, while producing even more heat. Reducing the thermal issue becomes critical to ensuring EM reliability.”

As stated previously, solder bumps can become a site for EM reliability failure. “Engineers fine-tune bump design in terms of bump size, pitch, and shape to ensure uniformity and reliability across the entire package. This includes the adoption of innovative Cu bump structures for improved mechanical and electrical properties,” said Amkor’s Zwenger.

In flip-chip BGA and other flip-chip applications, underfill materials — typically thermoset epoxies — are used to reduce the thermal stresses on solder bumps. “Underfill materials play a critical role in providing mechanical support and thermal stability to the bumps,” Zwenger said. “Engineers are investing in the development of advanced underfill formulations with enhanced properties, such as improved adhesion, thermal conductivity, and stress relief.”

Because of its dependence on temperature, electromigration is a failure mechanism to watch and plan for as devices continue to scale and systems integrators continue to cram more and more chiplets of various functions into advanced packages.

“In advanced technologies, the current density is now in close proximity to the maximum density,” said Synopsys’ Lynch. “Anything that causes an increase in temperature poses a threat. Designers of multi-die systems need to understand the impact of temperature and design systems to remove the heat.”


  1. JiHye Kwon, “Electromigration Performance Of Fine-Line Cu Redistribution Layer (RDL) For HDFO Packaging,” Semiconductor Engineering, Jan. 18, 2024, https://semiengineering.com/electromigration-performance-of-fine-line-cu-redistribution-layer-rdl-for-hdfo-packaging/
  2. -Y. Tsai, et al., “An Electromigration Study of Cu Pillar Interconnects in Flip-chip QFN Packaging under Extreme Conditions for High-power Applications,” 2023 IEEE 25th Electronics Packaging Technology Conference (EPTC), Singapore, 2023, pp. 326-332, doi: 10.1109/EPTC59621.2023.10457564.

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