Brazing Copper

Brazing Education

Furnace Brazing Copper in Hydrogen Gas

Copper is a vacuum compatible material with excellent electrical and thermal conductivity properties. Copper is used in many high-vacuum and high-temperature applications as well as in virtually all ion beam and electron beam devices such as linear accelerators, x-ray tubes and traveling wave tubes. Copper is one of the most commonly brazed metals our customers purchase from our Brazing Services here at Altair Technologies. While we do perform vacuum brazing of copper, we primarily use Hydrogen brazing because it is arguably the best process for bonding metals and ceramics regardless of the application.

Hydrogen Brazing

Copper assemblies shown in brazing furnace for brazing copepr in hydrogen gas

Here at Altair Technologies most of our products are for high vacuum applications and we, therefore, do most of our brazing in Hydrogen Gas or in a high vacuum atmosphere. During the braze run, while assemblies are being heated up to braze temperature, the furnace “bell” sees a steady flow of Hydrogen gas. This process continues until parts are below a certain temperature at which time the bell is backfilled with Nitrogen gas. Products or assemblies that are commonly hydrogen brazed include X-Ray Tubes, Traveling Wave Tubes, Linear Accelerators for medical, research and security applications and similar ion or electron beam devices. For reasons to be explained below, Hydrogen brazing is arguably the best process for bonding metals and ceramics regardless of the application.

How to Braze Copper and why Hydrogen?

A copper brazing furnace is basically a hydrogen brazing furnace. Hydrogen (H2) gas acts as a fluxing agent, reducing native oxides and removing hydrocarbon contamination producing an ultra-clean raw metal surface. Many oxides, like  iron oxide and copper oxide, are easily reduced by H2, whereas many others like Al, Be, Ti & Si can be very tenacious and will not braze or reduce properly in wet or dry H2. Copper is usually brazed in wet hydrogen, however, depending on the other materials being brazed, like stainless steel where the removal of oxides is necessary, dry hydrogen can be used.

Here we have a reactive family of elements that may form undesirable compounds and are therefore typically brazed in high vacuum or with other inert gases like helium or argon. Chromium (Cr), which is a large constituent of Stainless Steel (SST), occurs near the middle of the oxidation/reduction equilibrium space that hydrogen furnaces can produce. As desired, we can form chromium oxide or reduce that oxide by the atmosphere’s dew-point for temperatures greater than 800 ºC. For chromium-rich stainless steel (SST), we braze in a dry hydrogen atmosphere or if plated with nickel or another suitable metal, we can alternately braze in a wet hydrogen atmosphere.

The chart below shows the temperature and/or dew point where the native oxides for various metals can be reduced. FYI, dew points below -60 C are not achievable.

Cr2O3 stable even in Dry H2

Metal-Metal Oxide Equilibria in H2/H20 Atmospheres
Metal-Metal Oxide Equilibria in H2/H20 Atmospheres

The decision to braze in “wet” or “dry” Hydrogen can depend on a few important aspects such as the base or substrate materials being used and/or the filler alloy type, as well as the application or performance requirements. In cases where the removal of oxides is predominantly important or necessary, dry Hydrogen is used and if the user is more concerned with the removal of hydrocarbon contaminants, it is advisable to braze in wet Hydrogen.

Perhaps the most important aspect or lesson to be learned from this Post is that “Hydrogen Brazing” requires special vacuum grade OFE Copper 101. We’ve learned over the years that not all OFE is equal and more importantly not all suppliers of OFE Copper are reputable. Here at Altair Technologies, we source direct all of our Copper and virtually any material to be used in a high vacuum application. When Non-OFE Copper is used, oxide inclusions form water-vapor in a hydrogen furnace. This phenomenon results in “blisters,” “bulges,” or rough surfaces, where the copper part(s) expand permanently and the braze alloy/filler disappears into opened grain boundaries. In this scenario, vacuum leaks are inevitable.

Copper bulge or blister shown on non-OFE copper
Bulge or blister Seen on Non-OFE Copper
 Copper Inclusion Grain Boundary Disruption
Copper Inclusion Grain Boundary Disruption

It should be noted that vacuum leaks due to Non-OFE Copper that has been brazed in Hydrogen gas are easily detected, but can be hard or impossible to pin-point.