Glass Coating

Introduction to Vacuum Coating or Thin Film Technology

November 9, 2020

Vacuum Coating — also called ‘Thin Film Technology’; or Physical Vapour Deposition (PVD) — represents an impressive share among the various applications of vacuum technology. In this blog post, we share an overview of the historical development, the various basic principles underpinning the generating of thin films, and the general layout of coating devices.

What are thin films?

Thin Films are layers of material on surfaces with a thickness well below a nanometer and up to a micrometer. There are multiple reasons to coat a device with a thin film. Just a few examples include: 

  • Protective films to prevent corrosion

  • Decorative layers on jewelry or bathroom fittings

  • Wear protection on tools 

  • Multiple layers to improve optical properties of ophthalmic lenses

  • Semiconductor or solar cell production

  • Touch-panel production

  • Head-up displays in automotive industry 

  • Mirrors of reflector lamps

  • Packaging foils for freshness preservation

  • Architectural glass for thermal insulation

  • Dactyloscopy 

This list is not exhaustive, and new applications are continually emerging

Protective coating under vacuum

The history of coating technology 

Although it’s an exciting and growing science and technology today, it has its origins in experiments taking place more than 150 years ago, when W.R. Grove first observed sputtering effects in 1852 and Michael Faraday investigated arc evaporation forming films in 1857.

In the early 20th Century the fundamentals of different coating techniques were investigated and the first commercially coated products, like aluminised reflectors or thin film resistors, were introduced to the market in the 1930s. After WW2 the technology boomed. 

Vacuum conditions for thin film technology

Today we differentiate the various techniques used to deposit a thin film layer on a substrate into Physical Vapour Deposition (PVD) or Chemical Layer Deposition (CVD). Vacuum plays an essential role in PVD which requires high vacuum. Vacuum also forms part of most CVD applications.

The most mature technology is thermal evaporation. A material is melted and evaporated at high temperatures and the vapour is deposited on the target. The temperatures required can be taken from the graph pictured below.

Saturation vapour pressure of different metals

Saturation vapour pressure of different metals

Evaporation can be achieved by heating wires electrically or depositing it in crucibles of material with a significantly higher melting point. Another way is to melt it by using an electron beam.

In both cases a high vacuum of 10-07 to 10-05 mbar is required during the coating process, depending on the size of the vacuum chamber and the required quality of the layer. The reasons are:

  • To ensure a mean free path of evaporated atoms that’s much longer than the distance from source to target. This ensures that the atoms arrive unscattered by residual gas molecules.

  • To provide a clean surfaces. Otherwise the evaporated atoms would not stick well and would form an unstable layer. 

Another way to coat samples is by sputtering. Sputter deposition uses a target material which is bombarded by ions accelerated out of a plasma. The most commonly used plasma gas is Argon. The Argon ions sputter atoms of target material which coat the substrate. Due to the higher energy of the sputtered atoms they stick better than if applied through thermal evaporation. However, sputter deposition requires a more extensive system engineering operating under vacuum conditions. While a sputtering process that uses Argon plasma is running at pressures above 5 x 10-04 (and up to 1 x 10-02) mbar, an ultimate pressure in the 10-06 mbar range is required for cleaning and to ensure the purity of each layer.

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