Keep it Tight: Understanding Hermeticity 

Download PDF

One of the great ways to make it in the electronics industry is to realize that everything old is new again. About every five years, almost like clockwork, manufacturers seem to forget how to make the most basic of technologies. Wire bonds. Electrolytic capacitors. Flame retardants. Underfills. Etc.

Hermetic packages are a great example. The very first semiconductor devices, going back to the commercialization of the transistor in the early 1950’s, were hermetically sealed. TI even highlighted the value of their moisture-proof glass-to-metal packaging in an advertisement in 1953. (For a great treatise on the early days of semiconductors, go to transistorhistory/Home/us-semiconductormanufacturers/ti). And yet, even though this technology is one of the oldest in the microelectronics industry, it is amazing how poorly hermeticity is understood and how often devices fail due to issues with their hermetic environment.

As a first step in this discussion, we need to define where hermeticity is needed. Hermetic packages are required in the small portion of electronic parts that cannot be potted/encapsulated with resin. These include

  • Parts that have mechanical movement (crystals, MEMS, relays)
  • Parts that function using light (optoelectronics) • Parts that operate at high frequency (microwave)
  • Parts that cannot outgas (space applications)
  • Parts that must operate at elevated temperatures (above 125C)
  • Parts that must be high reliability (some military applications)[Note: This can sometimes be based on the incorrect assumption that hermetic parts are more reliable than plastic parts]

While hermetic packages are classified by their ability to prevent the escape or entry of air, there is actually a wide range of materials used to endow hermeticity. The housing can be fabricated from a variety of metals or ceramics, with the most common being Kovar and Alumina. The seam can be created through a welding, brazing, or soldering process. And the feedthroughs can incorporate variety of designs and materials, depending upon geometries, performance requirements, and, most importantly, cost targets.

To have a successful hermetic package requires not just the ability to keep out the ‘bad’ air but also to make sure there is ‘good’ air inside the package and that ‘good’ air does not change over time.

For keeping out the ‘bad’ air, a significant amount of effort has been expended by the electronics community in developing techniques and specifications. The oldest and most popular are the methods defined in three US military standards:

  • MIL-STD-202, Test Method for Electronic and Electrical Component Parts – Method 112E Seal
  • MIL-STD-750, Test Methods for Semiconductor Devices – Method 1071.9 Hermetic Seal
  • MIL-STD-883, Test Method for Microcircuits – Method 1014.13 Seal

For the purposes of this article, we are going to skip past the gross leak tests defined in the standard and focus primarily on fine leak detection (less than 10-5 atm cm3 /s). Within the realm of fine leak detection, the dominant technique is still the helium leak test (also known as helium mass spectrometry), even as tracer gas and interferometry have demonstrated superior performance at the increasingly smaller volumes of today’s wafer-level and MEMS devices.

The major difficulty with leak rate standards is the problem with almost all standards and specifications: a strong desire by the majority of users to do the least amount of work possible (which is understandable, as time is money). That means they quickly look for THE NUMBER (typically in a table). For the three military standards that means using the Fixed Conditions procedure, where the hermetic device is ‘bombed’ in a helium environment for a period of time and the device is then rejected if it a certain rate is detected escaping from the device (assuming it had no helium to begin with).

The MIL-STD-202G (2002) and MIL-STD-883H (2010) provide similar reject limits. For example, the helium leak rate must be less than 5 x 10-8 atm cm3 / second for small packages (volumes less than 0.4 cc). This basic leak rate has become gospel and is pervasive among numerous part manufacturers and independent labs. In fact, what is kind of funny is that commercial component industry has pretty much thrown out the volume and specs 5 x 10-8 atm cm3 /second for almost everything (what did I tell you about looking for the easy way out?).

MIL-STD-750, however, is different. In response to concerns about insufficient leak rates for smaller packages and a misreading of requirements, the newer MIL-STD-750F (2012) has changed the conversation from helium leak rates to air leak rates (that is, how the device will actually perform in the real environment). See, air leaks at a much lower rate than helium (larger molecule). This and other attributes need to be considered when correlating the results of the helium leak rate test to time to failure in the actual use environment.

But wait! This is not the end of the story (and, yes, I understand the story has been pretty dry up to this point). There are two issues with the new requirements in MIL-STD-750F. First, most mass spectrometers have a detection limit of 1 x 10-9 atm cm3 /second. Problem is that there are number of instances where Table 1071-V requires detection limits down to 1 x 10-10 and 1 x 10-11. So it looks like the boys in DC want to jump start the economy by requiring everyone to buy new equipment.

The second issue is how to calculate time to failure based on the leak rate. Because, really, the only reason to define a maximum leak rate is to make sure the hermetic package will not fail over the desired lifetime. And how do hermetic packages fail if they become leakers? Moisture. Water is the enemy number one to almost all hermetic packages.

And how much moisture is too much moisture? For that, you might refer back to the August issue of Global SMT and Packaging, available in the digital archive at

Craig Hillman is CEO and Managing Member for DfR Solutions. Dr. Hillman’s specialties include best practices in Design for Reliability (DfR), Pb-Free strategies for transitioning to Pb-free, supplier qualification (commodity and engineered products), passive component technology (capacitors, resistors, etc.), and printed board failure mechanisms. Dr. Hillman has over 40 Publications and has presented on a wide variety of reliability issues to over 250 companies and organizations.



Hermetic packaging of micro-electronic and opto-electronic devices is commonly utilized to protect the devices from aggressive application environments (submarine; outdoor industrial and telecom; space). While many failure modes exist (seal failures; outgassing of organics; evolution of secondary gas species), the most commonly observed failure modes are due to trapped water vapor and possible condensation onto critical surfaces/devices.