Sputter deposition is a physical vapor deposition (PVD) method of thin film deposition by sputtering. This involves ejecting material from a "target" that is a source onto a "substrate" such as a silicon wafer. Resputtering is re-emission of the deposited material during the deposition process by ion or atom bombardment. Sputtered atoms ejected from the target have a wide energy distribution, typically up to tens of eV (100,000 K). The sputtered ions (typically only a small fraction of the ejected particles are ionized — on the order of 1%) can ballistically fly from the target in straight lines and impact energetically on the substrates or vacuum chamber (causing resputtering). Alternatively, at higher gas pressures, the ions collide with the gas atoms that act as a moderator and move diffusively, reaching the substrates or vacuum chamber wall and condensing after undergoing a random walk. The entire range from high-energy ballistic impact to low-energy thermalized motion is accessible by changing the background gas pressure. The sputtering gas is often an inert gas such as argon. For efficient momentum transfer, the atomic weight of the sputtering gas should be close to the atomic weight of the target, so for sputtering light elements neon is preferable, while for heavy elements krypton or xenon are used. Reactive gases can also be used to sputter compounds. The compound can be formed on the target surface, in-flight or on the substrate depending on the process parameters. The availability of many parameters that control sputter deposition make it a complex process, but also allow experts a large degree of control over the growth and microstructure of the film.
One of the earliest widespread commercial applications of sputter deposition, which is still one of its most important applications, is in the production of computer hard disks. Sputtering is used extensively in the semiconductor industry to deposit thin films of various materials in integrated circuit processing. Thin antireflection coatings on glass for optical applications are also deposited by sputtering. Because of the low substrate temperatures used, sputtering is an ideal method to deposit contact metals for thin-film transistors. Another familiar application of sputtering is low-emissivity coatings on glass, used in double-pane window assemblies. The coating is a multilayer containing silver and metal oxides such as zinc oxide, tin oxide, or titanium dioxide. A large industry has developed around tool bit coating using sputtered nitrides, such as titanium nitride, creating the familiar gold colored hard coat. Sputtering is also used as the process to deposit the metal (e.g. aluminium) layer during the fabrication of CDs and DVDs.
Hard disk surfaces use sputtered CrOx and other sputtered materials. Sputtering is one of the main processes of manufacturing optical waveguides and is another way for making efficient photovoltaic solar cells.
Sputter coating in scanning electron microscopy is a sputter deposition process to cover a specimen with a thin layer of conducting material, typically a metal, such as a gold/palladium (Au/Pd) alloy. A conductive coating is needed to prevent charging of a specimen with an electron beam in conventional SEM mode (high vacuum, high voltage). While metal coatings are also useful for increasing signal to noise ratio (heavy metals are good secondary electron emitters), they are of inferior quality when X-ray spectroscopy is employed. For this reason when using X-ray spectroscopy a carbon coating is preferred.
Comparison with other deposition methods
An important advantage of sputter deposition is that even materials with very high melting points are easily sputtered while evaporation of these materials in a resistance evaporator or Knudsen cell is problematic or impossible. Sputter deposited films have a composition close to that of the source material. The difference is due to different elements spreading differently because of their different mass (light elements are deflected more easily by the gas) but this difference is constant. Sputtered films typically have a better adhesion on the substrate than evaporated films. A target contains a large amount of material and is maintenance free making the technique suited for ultrahigh vacuum applications. Sputtering sources contain no hot parts (to avoid heating they are typically water cooled) and are compatible with reactive gases such as oxygen. Sputtering can be performed top-down while evaporation must be performed bottom-up. Advanced processes such as epitaxial growth are possible.
Some disadvantages of the sputtering process are that the process is more difficult to combine with a lift-off for structuring the film. This is because the diffuse transport, characteristic of sputtering, makes a full shadow impossible. Thus, one cannot fully restrict where the atoms go, which can lead to contamination problems. Also, active control for layer-by-layer growth is difficult compared to pulsed laser depositionand inert sputtering gases are built into the growing film as impurities. Pulsed laser deposition is a variant of the sputtering deposition technique in which a laser beam is used for sputtering. Role of the sputtered and resputtered ions and the background gas is fully investigated during the pulsed laser deposition process.