Thin Film Deposition By Sputtering: Essential Basics

abstract sputtering glow

There are several methods of Thin Film Deposition which is a vacuum technology for applying coatings of pure materials to the surface of various objects. The coatings are usually in the thickness range of angstroms to microns and can be a single material, or multiple materials in a layered structure.

The object to be coated is referred to as the substrate, and can be any of a wide variety of things such as: semiconductor wafers, solar cells, optical components, or many other possibilities. The materials to be applied can be pure atomic elements including both metals and non metals, or can be molecules such as oxides and nitrides.

Coating methods include Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) and one technique is called Sputtering. The sputtering method of thin film deposition involves introducing a controlled gas, usually chemically inert argon, into a vacuum chamber, and electrically energizing a cathode to establish a self sustaining plasma. The exposed surface of the cathode, called the target, is a slab of the material to be coated onto the substrates.

The gas atoms lose electrons inside the plasma to become positively charged ions, which are then accelerated into the target and strike with sufficient kinetic energy to dislodge atoms or molecules of the target material. It can be thought of as a sort of atomic scale bead blasting. This sputtered material now constitutes a vapor stream, which traverses the chamber and hits the substrate, sticking to it as a coating or “thin film”.

In order to get good film adhesion, it is, of course, necessary for the substrate surface to be clean. Appropriate cleaning and handling steps must be employed prior to placing substrates into the vacuum chamber. In addition, it is not uncommon to also have optional in situ cleaning features such as sputter etch incorporated into the sputter system.

Diagram of the Sputtering Process

Diagram of the Sputtering Process

Thin Film Coating Eqiuipment FAQs Video

Steps may have to be taken to control various film properties as desired. Fortunately, sputter system design can allow adjustability of a number of parameters in order to give process engineers the ability to achieve desired results for such variables as thickness, uniformity, adhesion strength, stress, grain structure, optical or electrical properties, etc.

There are also considerations such as what type of power to use on the cathodes. DC power is suitable for conductive materials, but RF power can also sputter non conductive materials. Pulsed DC has advantages for some processes such as reactive sputtering.

Another process option is Reactive Sputtering, which utilizes a non inert gas, such as oxygen, in combination with an elemental target material, such as silicon. This gas creates a chemical reaction with the sputtered atoms inside the chamber forming a new compound (silicon oxide in this example) which becomes the coating instead of the original pure target material.

Thin Film Deposition Sputter systems can also be configured with various hardware or software options. These can include sputter etch or ion source capability for in situ cleaning of substrate surfaces, or substrate pre heat stations. Other options can include multiple cathodes, confocal arrangements of cathodes, load lock stations and/or substrate handlers, as well as substrate bias capability.

Accessories such as residual gas analyzers (RGA’s), and other custom features and custom automation are also available. Magnetron cathodes are the most popular type, and are available in various sizes and shapes. Cryogenic pumps are the most popular type of high vacuum pump, but other options are available if desired.

In its various forms, Thin Film Deposition Sputtering offers the advantages of film adhesion strength and good step or via coverage. With appropriate mechanical configuration, it is also possible to perform simultaneous double sided coating, and load lock chamber entry and exit are commonly available.

Semicore’s CAPOS all-in-one PVD Sputtering or Thermal Evaporation System

CAPOS CT Multi-Chamber PVD Coating System

CAPOS-CT Multi-Chamber PVD Coating System Video

Semicore’s breakthrough CAPOS thin film deposition system is the PVD Industry’s first cost effective “Open-platform” design, that is ideal for both precision R&D and batch production.

Flexible enough that it can be used for either sputtering or evaporation coatings, this platform is also used for Semicore’s CAPOS-CT series, as a highly versatile “Cluster Tool” platform that can be configured with multiple Process Modules (PM) and cassette-to-cassette operation that speeds production cycles. Read more…

For more detailed information on these units’ specifications please download the PDF.

Matt Hughes is President of Semicore Equipment Inc, a leading worldwide supplier of sputtering equipment for the electronics, solar energy, optical, medical, military, automotive, and related high tech industries. Please let our helpful support staff answer any questions you have regarding Pre-Cleaning & Etching for PVD Coatings and how to implement the best techniques and equipment for your specific Sputtering Systems and Evaporation Systems needs by contacting us at or by calling 925-373-8201.


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RF or Radio Frequency Sputtering is the technique involved in alternating the electrical potential of the current in the vacuum environment at radio frequencies to avoid a charge building up on certain types of sputtering target materials, which over time can stop the discharge of sputtering atoms terminating the sputtering process… Read More

High Power Impulse Magnetron Sputtering or HIPIMS is a relatively recent advance in sputtering technology used for the physical vapor deposition of thin film coatings based upon Magnetron Sputtering with a high voltage pulsed power source. HIPIMS utilizes a very high voltage, short duration burst of energy focused on the target coating material to generate a high density plasma that results in a high degree of ionization of the coating material in the plasma… Read More