Sputtering is a process whereby atoms are ejected from a solid target material due to bombardment of the target by energetic particles. It is commonly used for thin-film deposition, etching and analytical techniques (see below).
Physics of sputtering
Physical sputtering is driven by momentum exchange between the ions and atoms in the materials, due to collisions.
The incident ions set off collision cascades in the target. When such cascades recoil and reach the target surface with an energy above the surface binding energy, an atom can be ejected. If the target is thin on an atomic scale the collision cascade can reach the back side of the target and atoms can escape the surface binding energy `in transmission'. The average number of atoms ejected from the target per incident ion is called the sputter yield and depends on the ion incident angle, the energy of the ion, the masses of the ion and target atoms, and the surface binding energy of atoms in the target. For a crystalline target the orientation of the crystal axes with respect to the target surface is relevant.
The primary particles for the sputtering process can be supplied in a number of ways, for example by a plasma, an ion source, an accelerator or by a radioactive material emitting alpha particles.
A model for describing sputtering in the cascade regime for amorphous flat targets is Thompson's analytical model. An algorithm that simulates sputtering based on a quantum mechanical treatment including electrons stripping at high energy is implemented in the program TRIM.
A different mechanism of physical sputtering is heat spike sputtering. This may occur when the solid is dense enough, and the incoming ion heavy enough, that the collisions occur very close to each other. Then the binary collision approximation is no longer valid, but rather the collisional process should be understood as a many-body process. The dense collisions induce a heat spike (also called thermal spike), which essentially melts the crystal locally. If the molten zone is close enough to a surface, large amounts of atoms may sputter due to flow of liquid to the surface and/or microexplosions. Heat spike sputtering is most important for heavy ions (say Xe or Au or cluster ions) with energies in the keV–MeV range bombarding dense but soft metals with a low melting point (Ag, Au, Pb, ...). The heat spike sputtering often increases nonlinearly with energy, and can for small cluster ions lead to dramatic sputtering yields per cluster of the order of 10000. For animations of such a process see here.
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