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microwave materials 11

Advances in high frequency printed circuit board

By Art Aguayo, Rogers Corporation

ccess to wireless high speed data is Figure 1: Development history of high frequency PCB materials.
quickly becoming a necessity in multiple
markets like Defense/Aerospace and
Mobile Networks. Future warriors, be they
soldiers or businessmen, will require ubiquitous
access to high speed data rates in order to
complete their missions with success. In order to
address these needs, communication technologies
and networks will need to handle data that is
expected to double every year, and to do so will
bring new challenges from the design community
and to the high frequency supplier base. Increased
densities, increased functionality, higher power
levels and overall reduced total solution costs
need to be addressed, and it all begins with the
high frequency printed circuit board (PCB). This
paper will cover advances in microwave/RF be in line with traditional FR-4 practices. A E‑band microwave radios For other applications
materials technology that addresses the needs new generation of materials was developed the reduced loss is a means by which heat
of designers responsible for developments from to address these needs which incorporated generation can be minimized in high power
defense systems to commercial 4G networks. thermoset hydrocarbon resins. This allowed amplifiers. In microwave circuits, there are
High frequency organic PCB materials have PCB facilities to process these materials very three main types of losses associated with PCB
been used in microwave/RF applications since much like FR-4 and reduce conversion costs, technology. The losses are dielectric losses,
the 1950’s. The first generation of materials in particular multilayer board designs (MLB’s). conductor losses and radiation losses. Radiation
were mainly a composite of PTFE (Teflon®) Figure 1 shows the development history of high losses are more design dependent and outside of
and woven glass. They offered design engineers frequency PCB materials. For the past 10 to the scope of this article, while dielectric losses
the advantage of having controlled dielectric 15 years, we have been mainly working with are mainly related to the dissipation factor
constants and low dielectric losses (loss these materials as the defense market has gone (DF) of the dielectric material and are usually
tangent) for use in applications up to 10 GHz. through changes and the telecommunications well understood by the designer. On the other
The applications using these materials were market has gone from 2G to 3G. However, today hand, conductor losses are not always properly
mainly found in the defense and aerospace we are faced with new challenges. The defense accounted for in many designs and can be the
market. Performance and not cost was the market is seeking to increase significantly its source of discrepancies between modeled and
focus of these early high frequency PCB communications network capabilities while the measured values. We will discuss the effects on
applications. For the next 40 years, variations mobile communication systems are moving on to conductor losses from both conductor roughness
of these materials were introduced into this 4G, all of which means new challenges and new and metal finish (surface plating).
market. Replacing woven glass with random materials. Over the past two years, we have seen The roughness of the conductor and the
glass fibers or ceramic filler allowed suppliers many new materials introduced into this market interface between the conductor and the
of high frequency laminates to address the that allow designers to deal with challenges in a dielectric has a big impact on the overall loss
higher performance needs of designers, who more cost effective way, be it designing airborne of the circuit. A rougher copper surface will
were mainly still working on defense and antenna systems or power amplifiers for base translate to more surface area and a longer
aerospace projects. The 1990’s brought about stations or E-band backhaul transceiver radios. path for the wave to propagate. This effect
many changes. Decreased defense spending becomes more dominant as frequencies increase
and the emergence of mobile communications Reduced circuit losses or as dielectric thickness decreases (in case of
required RF/microwave designers to focus on Many applications today are looking at millimeter wave applications both are true).
reducing total system cost. Successful PCB means to reduce overall circuit losses. In Use of low profile (or reverse treated) copper is
materials introduced during this time not only some applications, the driver is to reduce recommended for high frequency applications.
had to perform electrically, but as important, losses because they are operating at very high However, copper peel strength is often
fabrication and assembly costs needed to frequencies like +60 GHz, as is the case of proportional to the surface roughness of the

Microwave Engineering Europe ● December 2009 ●

12 microwave materials

copper foil for a given resin system. In the case performance on a ceramic hydrocarbon laminate conductivity than the copper. Also, nickel has
of high frequency thermoset materials, smooth narrows the gap in loss between this type of a ferromagnetic property, which can adversely
coppers were not able to be used due to the substrate and the lower DF PTFE substrates, affect the magnetic fields. Most of the plating
low resultant adhesion of the copper foil trace enabling the designer to extend the frequency use chemistry suppliers in the PCB industry have
on the PCB material. Development of a novel of these more cost effective materials. addressed the ferromagnetic properties with a
copper surface modifier has allowed the use Plating finishes can impact the overall certain alloy of nickel that is used in this process.
of smooth coppers, down to 0.6 µm rms, to be loss of the circuit due to lower conductivity However, the lower conductivity remains an
used without sacrificing the peel strength seen metallizations that cover the edges of the trace issue. An internal Rogers Corporation study
with standard foils used on traditional high and the currents that run at these locations. [1] was performed regarding the effect of
frequency PCB materials. Figure 2 shows the Silver plating may be the only exception to this ENIG plated finish and conductor loss. A chart
improvement in insertion loss of a bare copper increased loss effect due to its similar conductivity summarizing some of the information in that
50 W microstrip conductor on 0.1-mm‑thick to copper. This finish, however, is not as study is shown in figure 3.
(4-mil‑thick) dielectric with these new copper preferred as other finishes like electroless nickel / Selection of low profile copper and low loss
surface modifiers used in RO4350B™ LoPro™ immersion gold (ENIG) or immersion tin. plating are just as critical as the selection of
laminate. ENIG is a finish that has been widely used proper material when designing high frequency
The use of a low profile copper on the ceramic throughout the PCB industry over the past years. circuits. A not so apparent benefit of smooth
filled hydrocarbon material improves the insertion This finish is very good for maintaining a good copper is the decrease in temperature rise due
loss by about 40 percent, allowing the designer clean surface and remains easy for soldering over to RF power transmission. Losses form part
to use these materials at frequencies where once a long period of time. Unfortunately, the nickel of the calculations to estimate temperature
losses were prohibiting its usage. This improved is not a good conductor and is much lower in rise. Since conductor smoothness influences
insertion loss, then it is a straight forward
Figure 2: A exercise to see the connection between reduced
ceramic filled surface roughness and improvement in thermal
hydrocarbon management of an RF circuit. To illustrate
laminate the point, table 1 compares the estimated RF
compared to same power needed to increase surface temperature
laminate using a by 100°C for a microstrip circuit at 2.1 GHz
low profile copper using traditional 0.5 mm (20 mil) thick
and showing RO4350B material and the same thickness of
insertion loss over the new RO4350B LoPro product (calculations
frequency [2]. performed using the MWI online calculator
found on the Rogers Corporation Advanced
Circuit Materials website [2]).
Inversely what this example demonstrates
is that for a given power level, the resultant
temperature rise will be lower when using
smooth copper like the LoPro copper and lower
Figure 3: Data operating temperatures will overall increase the
showing insertion MTBF for a system.
loss versus
frequency of Thin material choices
copper only as Commercial high frequency applications have
compared to traditionally kept their operating frequencies
copper plated with below 40 GHz. Applications above 40 GHz
ENIG (electroless usually have been military in nature, but with the
nickel/immersion advent of 4G (LTE/WiMAX) and the significant
gold). forecasted increase of mobile broadband data,
concerns exist about efficient means by which to
connect wireless infrastructure to the wireline
network and to itself. One area of significance
here is the development of E-band radios
which operate at frequencies above 60 GHz
for microwave links. Some OEMs have been
developing systems with traditional materials but
with improved conductor losses, as explained
in the previous section. Other teams have been
Table 1: Impact on use of smooth copper of thermoset hydrocarbon material at 2.1 GHz. using completely new types of materials that are

Microwave Engineering Europe ● December 2009 ●

microwave materials 13

by nature thin and homogeneous. One concern this may have an impact (this phenomena has measured at 10 GHz [i.e., Rogers ULTRALAM®
with woven glass reinforced materials has been been documented in the high speed digital 3850 material available in 25 µm, 50 µm and
whether the periodicity of the glass weave can market using epoxy/woven glass materials) 100 µm (1, 2 and 4 mil) thickness.]
affect the effective dielectric constant of the A more homogeneous material would not LCP has excellent, very high frequency
material at a microscopic level, since once we experience this micro-variation in electrical capabilities. A paper was written regarding the
get to 77 GHz in frequency a ¼ wavelength properties. Such a material has been available use of thin LCP laminates. A LCP circuit was
becomes 0.8 mm (25 mils). Figure 4 shows for a couple of years but is just now receiving tested over a very wide range of frequencies up
how a trace, depending on where it lies on the more attention due to increased interest in to 110 GHz. The test vehicle was a conductor
glass weave, could find itself sitting on top of a very high frequency applications. This material backed coplanar waveguide (CBCPW) and
resin rich surface or closer to the glass weave. incorporates a liquid crystalline polymer (LCP) a simple drawing of that transmission line is
Depending on the application or circuit feature with electrical properties that include a dielectric shown in figure 5.
(transmission line versus edge coupled filter), constant of 2.9 and loss tangent of 0.0025 The electrical performance measured in this
study [3] was outstanding and can be seen in
Figure 4: Example of glass figure 6.
weave on microvariation of The circuit fabrication issues associated with
dielectric constant. LCP depend heavily upon the circuit construction.
The circuit mentioned in the high frequency
study was a relatively simple double-sided plated-
through-hole (PTH) circuit. This construction is
fairly easy to fabricate although attention needs to
be paid to proper drilling parameters and use of
a plasma cycle prior to PTH formation (similar to
PTFE). Simple homogeneous multilayer circuits
(3 to 4 layers) can be achieved. More complex
constructions requiring sequential lamination are
difficult due to the thermoplastic nature of both
core and bond layer.

Defense and Aerospace

Figure 5: Conductor backed The first market for high frequency circuit board
coplanar waveguide materials was defense & aerospace, and although
(CBCPW). much is said today about the downsizing of this
market, opportunities within advanced electronic
systems continue. New materials have been
designed that are enabling new technologies
to move forward. Airborne radar antennas are
becoming more complex and a greater part of
the military’s arsenal of tools to monitor the
world’s hot spots. To better serve the designer
needs, light weight/low dielectric constant PCB
dielectrics are needed. Foam PCB materials
have been introduced before but with limited
success. Their main drawback was the lack of
true circuit board processability, in particular the
ability to form plated through holes and thermal
limitations. There is a next generation of products
that addresses this problem. RT/duroid® 5880LZ
material is a low dielectric constant (1.96),
lightweight (1.37 g/cm3) PCB substrate that is
PTH capable and thermally robust. In addition,
with a low value for coefficient of thermal
expansion (41.5 ppm/°C, Z-axis) and low short
term thermal coefficient of dielectric constant
Figure 6: (+22 ppm/°C), seen in figure 7, it is well suited
Attenuation curve of for temperature varying environments.
CBCPW using 2 mil In addition to light weight circuit materials,
thick LCP. airborne antennas commonly need thin layers

Microwave Engineering Europe ● December 2009 ●

14 microwave materials

Figure 7:
Development environment
Coefficient of
brings wireless networking to
Dielectric Constant sports watches
for RT/duriod Texas Instruments claims eZ430-
5880LZ. Chronos is the first customizable
development environment within a
sports watch. Taking the popular line
of eZ430 development tools to the next
level, the kit allows developers to easily
harness the integration, low power and
wireless capabilities of the company’s
CC430 microcontroller.
Chronos is designed to provide
Figure 8: customers with all of the hardware and
Improvements software needed to immediately begin
in Ohmega Foil development of wireless networking
resistors on RT/ applications. It is equipped with sensors
duriod 6202PR for measurement and motion-based
versus RT/duroid control and can serve as a central hub
6202. for nearby wireless sensors so that users
have remote access to real-time data
from devices such as pedometers and
heart rate monitors.
Additionally, Chronos includes a
USB-RF access point for wireless set-up
and PC connectivity, as well as multiple
production-ready open source projects
to foster easy evaluation, design and
community collaboration.
Key benefits include a wearable
with resistors for use in power distribution infrastructure or more demanding, like +60 GHz form factor that allows customers
networks (combiner/splitters). Resistive layer microwave radios or defense airborne systems, to conveniently develop in remote
foils have been available for over two decades, new materials are being introduced to enable locations, three frequency bands of
but their use has been hindered by the fact the next generation designs. This work however 915, 868, and 433 MHz to enable
that resistor tolerances can typically exceed 20 comes from close partnership throughout the worldwide usage, and an integrated
percent unless a secondary trimming process is supply chain. Early collaboration between 3-axis accelerometer for motion
incorporated. Significant improvements to the “as OEM designers, circuit fabricators and material sensitive control as well as sensors
etched” tolerance have been achieved by making suppliers is critical to assure that the goals of the for measurement, including altimeter,
slight modifications to the copper base, dielectric design can be met in a timely fashion and at an temperature and battery voltage.
and lamination process. Figure 8 illustrates the acceptable total cost of ownership. ■ TI’s SimpliciTI and BM Innovations’
reduction in resistor variation after etch for BlueRobin RF protocols enable
the new RT/duroid 6202PR compared to the References developers to easily establish wireless
traditional RT/duroid 6202 material. [1] I nternal Rogers Corporation study, links regardless of RF knowledge.
Designers now have the ability to work “Increased Circuit Loss due to Ni/Au”, Other features include an eZ430
with thin temperature stable dielectrics, Dr. Al Horn, January 2006. emulator for simplified programming
achieved through the use of a selected filler/ [2] T
 echnical Literature Design 3.3.2, and debugging on top of base software
resin combination and tight dimensional Rogers Corporation, “Temperature Rise framework and RF functions, internal
tolerances (due to woven glass structures for Estimations in Rogers High Frequency CC430 memory for data storage, holding
reinforcement) in combination with resistive Circuit Boards Carrying Direct or RF up to 11 hours of data such as heart
copper foils to achieve high level passive Current”, Revised 3/2003. rate, a large 96 segment LCD driven
integration within a MLB structure. [3] T
 hompson, Kirby, Papapolymerou, directly by the CC430, and a USB-RF
Tentzerix, “W-Band Characterization of access point for PC communication and
Conclusion Finite Ground Coplanar Transmission automation, supported by production-
Evolving market needs continue to drive forward Line on Liquid Crystal (LCP) Substrates”, ready source projects.
development of high frequency circuit board IEEE Polytronic Conference 2003.
materials. Whether it be low frequency wireless

Microwave Engineering Europe ● December 2009 ●