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What is Differences Between Fr4 Glassfiber and Aluminum substrate for PCB?


Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are essential components of modern electronics. A PCB provides mechanical support and electrically connects different components using copper traces etched from copper sheets laminated onto a non-conductive substrate material. The substrate material plays a vital role in determining the performance and characteristics of the PCB. The two most common substrate materials used today are FR4 glass epoxy and aluminum.

FR4 glass epoxy is the ubiquitous substrate material used in the majority of PCBs. However, for certain demanding applications where high performance and thermal management are critical, aluminum substrates are being increasingly adopted.

This article provides a detailed comparison between FR4 and aluminum PCB substrates across various parameters like electrical performance, thermal conductivity, mechanical strength, ease of manufacturing, and cost. Understanding the pros and cons of both materials will help design engineers select the right substrate for their specific application requirements.

Electrical Performance

aluminum pcb Vs Fr4 PCB

Dielectric Constant

The dielectric constant of the substrate influences impedance control, signal integrity, and crosstalk on the PCB. The dielectric constant of FR4 is typically between 4.2 to 4.6 over the signal frequency range. In comparison, aluminum substrates have a lower dielectric constant of around 3.7.

The lower dielectric constant of aluminum allows tighter trace spacing and routing on outer layers without compromising signal integrity. This makes aluminum suitable for densely populated high-speed digital boards requiring tight impedance control.

Loss Tangent

The loss tangent indicates the inherent signal loss in the substrate material. FR4 has a loss tangent ranging from 0.01 to 0.025. In comparison, aluminum has an extremely low loss tangent of 0.001.

The lower loss tangent translates to lower signal loss and intersymbol interference. High-speed signals experience less distortion over aluminum substrates compared to FR4. This allows aluminum substrates to support higher signal frequencies and data rates.

Insulation Resistance

Insulation resistance indicates how effectively the substrate can insulate between conductors or layers carrying different signals. FR4 typically has an insulation resistance above 1000 MΩ. Aluminum substrates have a much lower insulation resistance of around 10-25 MΩ.

While the insulation resistance of FR4 is adequate for most applications, the lower insulation resistance of aluminum substrates makes them unsuitable for high-voltage boards.

Breakdown Voltage

Breakdown voltage is the maximum voltage that can be applied across the substrate before electrical breakdown occurs. FR4 has a breakdown voltage of around 12 kV/mm. Aluminum substrates have a comparatively lower breakdown voltage of 1.5 kV/mm.

The high breakdown voltage allows FR4 boards to operate safely at higher voltages. Aluminum substrates are not recommended where high potentials may be present between conductors or layers.

Summary of Electrical Performance

Electrical PropertyFR4Aluminum
Dielectric Constant4.2 – 4.63.7
Loss Tangent0.01 – 0.0250.001
Insulation Resistance>1000 MΩ10-25 MΩ
Breakdown Voltage12 kV/mm1.5 kV/mm

Thermal Performance

Thermal Conductivity

The thermal conductivity of the substrate determines how efficiently heat can be conducted across the PCB. FR4 has a poor thermal conductivity around 0.25 W/mK. In comparison, aluminum has a very high thermal conductivity of 237 W/mK.

The high thermal conductivity of aluminum allows it to rapidly conduct heat away from hot components. This makes aluminum substrates ideal for thermal management in high-power boards. FR4 does not conduct heat well, leading to localized heating and reliability issues.

Coefficient of Thermal Expansion (CTE)

The CTE indicates how much the material dimensions change with temperature. FR4 has a CTE of around 14-16 ppm/°C. Aluminum has a CTE of 23 ppm/°C.

The CTE mismatch between FR4, copper traces, and components leads to thermal stresses during heating and cooling cycles. Aluminum’s CTE is closer to copper, reducing thermal stresses on interconnects.

Thermal Cycles Withstood

Repeated thermal cycling can lead to failures like solder cracks and delamination due to material expansion and contractions. FR4 can typically withstand around 150 cycles from 0°C to 100°C. Aluminum substrates can endure over 2000 such cycles without failures.

Aluminum’s superior thermal cycling capability makes it suitable for applications with frequent thermal load fluctuations like aerospace and automotive.

Maximum Operating Temperature

The maximum temperature a substrate can reliably operate at depends on the glass transition temperature for organic materials like FR4 and the melting point for metals like aluminum. FR4 has a glass transition temperature of around 130°C. Aluminum has a higher melting point of 660°C.

The higher maximum operating temperature rating allows aluminum substrates to function in high-temperature environments beyond the capability of FR4 boards.

Summary of Thermal Performance

Thermal PropertyFR4Aluminum
Thermal Conductivity0.25 W/mK237 W/mK
CTE14-16 ppm/°C23 ppm/°C
Thermal Cycles Withstood150 (0°C to 100°C)2000+ (0°C to 100°C)
Max Operating Temperature130°C660°C

Mechanical Performance


Flexural Strength

Flexural or bend strength indicates the ability of the substrate to withstand bending forces without damage. FR4 has a flexural strength of around 275-380 MPa. Aluminum has a higher flexural strength of 110-350 MPa depending on the alloy.

The higher flexural strength provides more mechanical robustness to aluminum substrates compared to FR4.

Tensile Strength

Tensile strength indicates the ability to withstand tensile loads before fracturing. FR4 has relatively low tensile strength of 70-80 MPa. Aluminum has a tensile strength of 90-190 MPa depending on the alloy.

Aluminum substrates can endure higher pulling or tension forces compared to FR4 substrates.


Hardness indicates the resistance of the material to indentation, scratching, and abrasion. On the Rockwell scale, FR4 has a hardness of 100-110. Aluminum has a lower hardness of 25-50 depending on the alloy.

The higher hardness provides FR4 substrates better resistance against physical damage like scratches compared to softer aluminum.


Density is the mass per unit volume of the substrate material. FR4 has a density of 1900-2000 kg/m<sup>3</sup>. Aluminum has a lower density of 2700 kg/m<sup>3</sup>.

The lower density of FR4 provides a weight advantage in weight-sensitive aerospace and portable applications.

Summary of Mechanical Performance

Mechanical PropertyFR4Aluminum
Flexural Strength275-380 MPa110-350 MPa
Tensile Strength70-80 MPa90-190 MPa
Hardness100-110 (Rockwell)25-50 (Rockwell)
Density1900-2000 kg/m<sup>3</sup>2700 kg/m<sup>3</sup>


Layer Count

Modern PCBs utilize multi-layer designs to accommodate complex circuity and component density requirements. FR4 boards are available in high layer counts of over 30 layers from mainstream manufacturers. In comparison, aluminum boards are typically restricted to 2 or 4 layers.

For simpler boards, aluminum substrates can provide adequate layer counts. But for complex multilayer applications, FR4 provides far greater flexibility.

Via and Hole Fabrication

Vias and through-holes on PCBs allow interconnection between layers and component terminations. The standard process of drilling and plating holes is easily done on FR4 boards. But drilling smooth holes in aluminum is difficult due to the tendency of aluminum to smear around drill bits.

Mechanical punching and microvia laser drilling techniques allow holes to be formed in aluminum, but at higher cost. This restricts the minumum via size achievable on aluminum boards.

Component Assembly

Soldering is the predominant method of attaching components onto PCBs. The glass transition temperature of FR4 allows it to withstand soldering temperatures with minimal damage. Aluminum can dissolve into molten solder or get oxidized at elevated temperatures, requiring specialized soldering processes.

Aluminum boards may need higher temperature solders and fluxes as well as protective coatings in pad areas. This complicates component assembly compared to FR4 boards.

Material Availability

FR4 laminates are manufactured globally in large volumes and are readily available at low cost. In contrast, aluminum PCB substrates require specialized fabrication and have lower availability. Lead times over 8 weeks are common for aluminum boards.

For prototyping and production ramp-up, FR4 offers a time-to-market advantage over aluminum substrates.

Summary of Manufacturability Comparison

Manufacturing ParameterFR4Aluminum
Max Layer Count>30 layers2-4 layers
Via/Hole FabricationStandard drilling/platingChallenging
Component AssemblyStandard solderingSpecialized processes
Material AvailabilityReadily availableLower, longer lead times

Environmental Performance

Operating Temperature Range

As discussed earlier, the maximum operating temperature of FR4 is around 130°C. Aluminum substrates can operate to over 300°C.

For applications with temperature requirements beyond 130°C, aluminum provides the only option. FR4 substrates will be unsuitable beyond their glass transition point.

Resistance to Solvents

Organic substrates like FR4 can be attacked by strong solvents like acetone leading to swelling and mechanical damage. Aluminum exhibits excellent chemical resistance and is unaffected by solvents.

In applications where solvent resistance is critical like military avionics, aluminum provides a durable substrate resistant to chemicals.

Flame Retardancy

FR4 is naturally flammable due to its resin system. Flame retardants are incorporated to provide V-0 and V-1 flame ratings as per UL 94 standards. In contrast, aluminum is intrinsically non-flammable and does not require flame retardant additives.

For safety-critical applications like automotive, aluminum substrates eliminate the risk of flammability and smoke/toxic gas generation during fires.

Outgassing and Vacuum Compatibility

In vacuum environments, organic substrates like FR4 outgas moisture and other volatiles that can condense on sensitive surfaces. Aluminum has negligible outgassing and is well-suited for space and vacuum applications.

Additionally, FR4 laminates absorb atmospheric moisture affecting electrical performance. Aluminum substrates have lower moisture absorption issues.

Summary of Environmental Performance

Environmental AspectFR4Aluminum
Max Operating Temperature130°C>300°C
Solvent ResistancePoorExcellent
FlammabilityV-0, V-1 ratingsNon-flammable
Outgassing/Vacuum CompatibilityHigh outgassingNegligible outgassing
Moisture AbsorptionHighLow

Cost Considerations

Aluminum PCB substrates are significantly more expensive than conventional FR4 laminates. Raw material costs of aluminum are higher. Additional fabrication steps like thermal bonding of insulation layers and specialized hole-making techniques also add cost.

Complex multilayer aluminum boards can cost anywhere from 5-10 times more than an equivalent FR4 board. However, for demanding applications where performance merits the cost, aluminum may still provide the optimal value proposition.

Summary of FR4 vs Aluminum Substrates

Electrical PerformanceModerateExcellent signal integrity
Thermal PerformancePoorExcellent thermal conductivity
Mechanical PerformanceModerate strength and hardnessHigher strength
ManufacturabilityExcellent, well-establishedChallenging
Environmental PerformanceModerate thermal and chemical resistanceExcellent high-temp and chemical resistance
CostLow5X to 10X of FR4

When to use FR4?

  • Cost-sensitive applications
  • Consumer electronics with moderate performance requirements
  • Multi-layer complex boards >8 layers
  • Applications operating below 130°C

When to use Aluminum?

  • High-frequency RF/analog circuits requiring tight impedance control
  • High-power boards requiring heat dissipation (>3 kW/m2)
  • Rugged boards requiring high mechanical strength
  • Boards requiring resistance to high temperatures, chemicals, fire
  • Applications with weight constraints like aerospace and portable devices


FR4 continues to be the dominant PCB substrate with its balanced electrical performance, fabrication ease and low cost. Aluminum substrates provide superior thermal management, signal integrity, and environmental resistance but at significantly higher cost.

Engineers should weigh these trade-offs for their particular application requirements while selecting between the two. Hybrid boards combining aluminum base layers for thermal spreading and FR4 outer layers are also an option. The continued innovation in board materials will provide ever more options to designers to optimize the PCB substrate.

Frequently Asked Questions (FQA)

Q1: How are aluminum PCBs insulated if aluminum itself conducts electricity?

A1: Aluminum is sandwiched between insulating dielectric layers to prevent electrical conduction through the aluminum core. These dielectric layers typically use thermally conductive ceramics like aluminum oxide or aluminum nitride that are bonded to the aluminum under high pressure and temperature. This creates a well-insulated aluminum substrate.

Q2: Can components be soldered directly onto aluminum PCBs?

A2: Directly soldering component leads onto aluminum can cause metallurgical issues like solder voids, dissolution of aluminum into solder, and oxidation. To avoid this, aluminum boards usually have copper pads and lands on the outer layers where components are placed and soldered. Additionally, protective coatings like nickel or gold may be applied selectively over aluminum areas needing soldering.

Q3: Are aluminum PCBs prone to corrosion?

A3: Bare aluminum is prone to surface oxidation and corrosion when exposed to moisture. However, aluminum PCB substrates are coated with protective lacquers, anodization layers or conformal coatings to prevent corrosion. This provides excellent protection against harsh operating environments.

Q4: Can aluminum PCBs be made with as many layers as FR4 PCBs?

A4: Manufacturing technology currently limits aluminum-based boards to 2 or 4 layers in most cases. The difficulties in insulating layer bonding and drilling/plating via holes makes building complex multi-layer aluminum boards very challenging. FR4 based boards can reach over 30 layers using established processes.

Q5: Does weight saving justify the use of aluminum instead of FR4?

A5: In very weight-sensitive applications like aerospace, the lower density and weight of aluminum can provide tangible benefits. Up to 15% weight reduction is possible with aluminum versus FR4 boards of similar size. However, this advantage diminishes if aluminum is only used selectively in the core layers, with FR4 used on outer layers. The weight saving should be weighed against the higher cost.




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