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Trouble with sputter? Blame giant nanoparticles
Date:8/25/2010

When you tear open a bag of potato chips or pop in a DVD, you're probably putting your hand on sputter deposition. No, don't run for the soap.

Sputter deposition is an industrial process used since the 1970s to spray -- sputter, that is -- thin films onto various backings, like the metallic coating on potato chip bags, the reflective surface on DVDs, or the electronics on computer chips.

Mostly, the process works very well. In a vacuum chamber filled with an inert gas, like argon, high voltage is applied to a magnet. This energizes the argon, which, in turn, bumps particles of, say, tungsten metal from a source near the magnet out into the cloud of gas. Some of these extremely hot, charged tungsten particles zip at high speed through the argon and deposit onto the target, forming a thin film.

But sometimes the coatings peel off or the product bends in on itself and cracks, as if the film was stretched tight before it was applied to the surface. Other times, the films are just too rough. For decades, scientists have been baffled -- and manufacturers frustrated -- about why these problems happen.

Now researchers at the University of Vermont and the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago have an explanation: "it's nanoparticles," says Randy Headrick, professor of physics at UVM, "sticking and pulling together."

The discovery, led by Headrick's graduate student, Lan Zhou, was published August 10 in the journal Physical Review B.

Using high-powered x-rays, the team measured the size of tungsten particles depositing on a target and were amazed. Above a critical pressure in the argon gas (eight one-millionths of an atmosphere), the size suddenly jumped. Instead of single atoms or several-atom molecules -- as would be expected in the high-heat, high-velocity environment of a sputter chamber -- they detected relatively gigantic blobs of hundreds of atoms: what the researchers call a "nanoparticle aggrega
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Contact: Joshua Brown
joshua.e.brown@uvm.edu
802-656-3039
University of Vermont
Source:Eurekalert  

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