What is Thin Film Analysis?

Ray Hawk
Ray Hawk
Man holding computer
Man holding computer

Thin film analysis is a process of examining semiconductor films, most often used in the manufacture of microprocessors and solar energy applications, to ensure the material meets operating specifications. This is usually done through various forms of microscopy, such as X-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscope analysis, and more during the manufacturing process. It is important that thin films meet exacting optical, electrical, and deposition standards for the components based upon them, or minute flaws can cause the entire circuit they are made to support to fail.

Since there can be many steps in the process of creating a final thin film-based product, analysis of the product along the way can entail many steps as well. At the initial substrate level of production, thin film analysis involves looking from a material's science point of view at the properties of the film, including its conductivity, crystalline structure, chemical composition, and points of interface for electrical components such as transistors. Various forms of electron spectroscopy are used in this thin film analysis, including Rutherford back-scattering spectroscopy (RBS) to determine elemental composition, Auger electron spectroscopy (AES) to analyze surface features, and more.

Thin films that are employed in specialized applications, such as liquid crystal displays, solar cells, and batteries, will each involve their own unique series of thin film analysis steps. Thin film technology is also beginning to move away from a base material of silicon. Flexible thin film photovoltaic (PV) based on polyvinyl plastic compounds for solar applications, requires solar PV analysis as well, and thin film analysis of these materials involves a different set of processes than those used on silicon.

Solar film, unlike semiconductor film used for microprocessors, often undergoes environmental changes during use that require it to be more durable and long-lasting under temperature and other extremes. As a result, thin film analysis of materials meant for solar rooftops, for instance, can face examination by many scientific disciplines, from materials science to applied physics, chemistry, and mechanical engineering before the product is ready for sale.

Nanotechnology, both in terms of thin film analysis equipment and manufacturing processes, will continue to play a key role in quality control for thin films. This includes the necessity of doing thin film analysis in a clean room laboratory environment free of sunlight and most dust and airborne particles, any of which can irreversibly damage the surface of a thin film. The masking, etching, and deposition equipment used to create the thin film in the first place can also be used to run test cases and analyze the quality of the finished product as well to ensure that the process is properly calibrated to produce functional end products.

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