Thin-film deposition

From Academic Kids

Thin-film deposition is any technique for depositing a thin film of material unto a substrate or onto previously deposited layers. "Thin" is a relative term, but most deposition techniques allow layer thickness to be controlled within a few hundred nanometers, and some allow one layer of atoms to be deposited at a time.

It is useful in the manufacture of optics (for reflective or anti-reflective coatings, for instance), electronics (layers of insulators, semiconductors, and conductors form integrated circuits), and packaging (i.e., aluminum-coated mylar). Similar processes are sometimes used where thickness is not important: for instance, the purification of copper by electroplating, and the deposition of silicon and enriched Uranium by a CVD-like process after gas-phase processing.

Deposition techniques fall into two broad categories, based on whether they are understood in terms of chemistry, or of physics.


1 See also
2 External links

Chemical deposition

Here, a fluid precursor undergoes a chemical change at a solid surface, leaving a solid layer. An everyday example is the formation of soot on a cool object when it is placed inside a flame. Since the fluid surrounds the solid object, deposition happens on every surface, with little regard to direction; thin films from chemical deposition techniques tend to be conformal, rather than directional.

Chemical deposition is further categorized by the phase of the precursor:

  • Plating relies on liquid precursors, often a solution of water with a salt of the metal to be deposited. Some plating processes are driven entirely by reagents in the solution (usually for noble metals), but by far the most commercially important process is electroplating. It was not commonly used in semiconductor processing for many years, but has seen a resurgence with more widespread use of Chemical-mechanical polishing techniques.
  • Plasma enhanced CVD uses an ionized vapor, or plasma, as a precursor. Unlike the soot example above, commercial PECVD relies on electromagnetic means (electric current, microwave excitation), rather than a chemical reaction, to produce a plasma.

Physical deposition

Physical deposition uses mechanical or thermodynamic means to produce a thin film of solid. An everyday example is the formation of frost. Since most engineering materials are held together by relatively high energies, and chemical reactions are not used to store these energies, commercial physical deposition systems tend to require a low-pressure vapor environment to function properly; most can be classified as physical vapor deposition.

The material to be deposited is placed in an energetic, entropic environment, so that particles of material escape its surface. Facing this source is a cooler surface which draws energy from these particles as they arrive, allowing them to form a solid layer. The whole system is kept in a vacuum deposition chamber, to allow the particles to travel as freely as possible. Since particles tend to follow a straight path, films deposited by physical means are commonly directional, rather than conformal.

Some examples of physical deposition are given below:

  • A thermal evaporator uses an electric heater to boil the material. This is done in a high vacuum, both to prevent the gas from reacting with or scattering against atoms in the chamber, and to lower the material's boiling point. Obviously, only materials with a much lower vapor pressure than the heating element can be deposited without contamination of the film.
  • An electron beam evaporator fires a high-energy beam from an electron gun to boil a small spot of material; since the heating is not uniform, higher vapor pressure materials can be deposited.
  • Sputtering relies on a plasma (usually a noble gas, such as Argon) to knock material from a "target" a few atoms at a time. The target can be kept at a relatively low temperature, since the process is not one of evaporation, making this one of the most flexible deposition techniques. It is especially useful for compounds or mixtures, where different components would otherwise tend to evaporate at different rates.
  • Pulsed laser deposition systems work by an ablation process. Pulses of focused laser light to transform the target material directly from solid to plasma; this plasma usually reverts to a gas before it reaches the substrate.

Other deposition processes

Some methods fall outside these two categories, relying on a mixture of chemical and physical means:

  • In reactive sputtering, a small amount of some non-noble gas such as oxygen or nitrogen is mixed with the plasma-forming gas. After the material is sputtered from the target, it reacts with this gas, so that the deposited film is a different material, i.e. an oxide or nitride of the target material.
  • In Molecular beam epitaxy (MBE), slow streams of an element can be directed at the substrate, so that material deposits one atomic layer at a time. Compounds such as gallium arsenide are usually deposited by repeatedly applying a layer of one element (i.e., Ga), then a layer of the other (i.e., As), so that the process is chemical, as well as physical.

See also

External links

(A Google search on "thin film deposition" leads to 25,000 links, mostly for related equipment, textbooks, and university courses; very little of a tutorial or explanatory nature)

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