Plasma Etching: A Comprehensive Guide to the Process and Applications

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14 Dec, 2023

Plasma etching on a metallic surface

Plasma etching on a metallic surface

Understanding the Intricacies of Plasma Etching Systems, Mechanisms, Process types, Equipment and Applications of the Technology, its Impacts on the Environment, and Essential Safety Precautions for Safe and Productive Utilization of the Etching Technique.

Introduction

Plasma etching is critical in various industries, particularly semiconductor manufacturing, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and nanotechnology. It’s a dry etching technique that leverages the unique properties of plasma to selectively remove material from a substrate, offering numerous advantages over traditional wet etching methods. 

This article will delve into the fundamentals of plasma etching, explore the equipment, and techniques used, discuss its applications across different industries, and address this process's environmental and safety considerations.

Fundamentals of Plasma Etching

Plasma etching is a process used to remove material from the surface of a substrate using plasma. It uses highly energetic and reactive species produced from a selected process gas, such as Oxygen, Argon, or fluorine-bearing gas. These species are bombarded and reacted with the sample surface. It results in the breaking down of the material surface into volatile and smaller molecules. A vacuum system then removes these molecules. 

The substrate, coated with the material to be etched and shielded by a patterned photoresist layer, sits on a temperature-controlled platen in the reactor. Reactive species from the plasma interact with the exposed material, producing a volatile byproduct expelled from the chamber. This controlled process allows engineers to manage etching parameters precisely, making plasma etching pivotal in diverse engineering domains, including semiconductor manufacturing and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) fabrication.

A plasma etching/cutting machine working on a metallic plateFig 1: A plasma etching/cutting machine working on a metallic plate

What is Plasma?

Plasma is also referred to as the fourth state of matter. It’s an ionized gas of free electrons, ions, and neutral particles. It is a highly energized state of matter where a significant portion of the atoms are ionized, meaning they have lost one or more electrons. This gives plasma unique properties distinct from other states such as:

  • Free Electrons and Ions - Unlike in solids, liquids, and gases, plasma contains many free electrons and ions, making it electrically conductive. This characteristic is responsible for its diverse applications.

  • High Energy - Plasma is a high-energy state of matter, with temperatures ranging from thousands to millions of degrees Celsius. This makes it highly reactive and capable of uniquely interacting with other materials.

  • Magnetically Confined - Due to its charged particles, plasma can be manipulated and confined using magnetic fields. This property is crucial for controlling plasma in various applications, such as fusion energy research.

  • Luminosity - Because of the high energy, excited atoms in plasma emit light, giving it a characteristic glow or luminescence. This is why celestial bodies like stars and plasma lamps appear bright.

Tesla coil in operation with high energy lightning strikesFig 2: Tesla coil in operation with high energy lightning strikes

Some examples of plasma materials include lightning, neon signs, solar corona, fusion energy, and plasma TVs. 

Types of Plasma

There are different types of plasma, including thermal (or equilibrium) and non-thermal (or non-equilibrium) plasma. 

Thermal plasma is characterized by similar temperatures of electrons and ions, typically in the range of thousands to tens of thousands of Kelvin. 

On the other hand, in non-thermal plasma, the electron temperature is significantly higher than the ion temperature, allowing for efficient ionization at relatively low gas temperatures.

Plasma Etching Process

Etching is a process used to selectively remove material from a substrate, typically to create patterns or structures in various applications, such as semiconductor manufacturing and MEMS fabrication. 

There are two main etching, i.e., wet etching and dry etching. Here is a quick look at these two mechanisms:

Wet Etching 

Wet etching involves using liquid chemicals (etchants) to dissolve and remove material from the substrate. This process is typically isotropic, meaning that it etches in all directions equally, which can limit the precision and control of the etching process.

Dry Etching 

Dry etching uses gases or plasmas to remove material from the substrate. Plasma etching is a form of dry etching that leverages the unique properties of plasma to achieve highly anisotropic etching, which allows for greater control and precision in the etching process. This is particularly important in applications where the creation of complex, high-resolution structures is required, such as in semiconductor manufacturing.

Why is Plasma Etching Better than Wet Etching?

Plasma etching offers several advantages over wet etching methods for several reasons such as:

  • It provides better control over the etching process, enabling the creation of more precise and intricate structures. 

  • It allows for the use of a wider range of materials, as plasma etching can be tailored to target specific materials by adjusting the plasma chemistry. 

  • It is a cleaner process, as it does not involve using hazardous liquid chemicals and generates less waste. 

  • Integrating into automated manufacturing processes is easier, improving efficiency and reducing the potential for human error.

Further Reading: Dry Etching vs Wet Etching: A Comprehensive Comparison

Plasma Etching Mechanisms

Plasma etching operates through two primary mechanisms i.e., physical etching and chemical etching. The nature of the interactions between the plasma and the substrate material distinguishes these mechanisms.

Physical Etching

Physical etching, also known as sputtering or ion milling, involves the direct bombardment of the substrate by high-energy ions from the plasma. These ions collide with the atoms on the substrate surface, transferring their kinetic energy and causing the atoms to be ejected from the substrate. 

Physical etching is primarily anisotropic, meaning it etches in a single direction, which allows for the creation of sharp, well-defined features. However, it can also cause damage to the substrate due to the high-energy ion bombardment.

Chemical Etching

Chemical etching involves the reaction of reactive species from the plasma with the substrate material. These reactive species, which can be neutral or charged, chemically react with the substrate atoms to form volatile compounds easily removed from the substrate surface. Chemical etching is typically isotropic, meaning it etches in all directions equally, but it can be made anisotropic by using a plasma, which provides directional control over the reactive species.

Reactive Ion Etching (RIE)

In practice, most plasma etching processes involve physical and chemical etching, known as Reactive Ion Etching (RIE). In RIE, the plasma generates reactive species for chemical etching, while the electric field in the plasma provides directional control for physical etching. This combination allows for creating of complex, high-resolution structures with high aspect ratios.

Plasma Etching Equipment and Techniques

Plasma etching requires specialized equipment to generate and control the plasma, deliver the etching gases, and handle the substrate. The design and configuration of this equipment play a crucial role in determining the performance and capabilities of the plasma etching process.

Plasma Etching Systems

A typical plasma etcher system consists of several main components:

Plasma Generation Chamber

The plasma generation chamber is where the etching gases are ionized to form the plasma. This chamber is typically made of materials that can withstand high temperatures and corrosive gases, such as quartz or stainless steel. The design of the chamber, including its size, shape, and electrode configuration, can significantly influence the properties of the plasma, such as its density, uniformity, and energy distribution.

Gas Delivery System

The gas delivery system controls the flow of etching gases into the plasma chamber. This system usually includes gas supply lines, flow controllers, and a gas mixing chamber. The choice and mixture of gases determine the plasma chemistry, affecting the etching rate, selectivity, and profile.

Substrate Holder

The substrate holder, the wafer chuck, holds the substrate in place during etching. In addition to mechanical support, the substrate holder often provides thermal management to control the substrate temperature, which can influence the etching performance.

Vacuum System

The vacuum system maintains a low-pressure environment in the plasma chamber, which is necessary for plasma generation and control. This system typically includes a vacuum pump, pressure sensors, and control valves. The operating pressure affects the mean free path of the plasma particles, which can influence the etching directionality and uniformity.

A typical plasma cutting/etching machineFig 3: A typical plasma cutting/etching machine

Plasma Generation Technique

The generation of plasma is a critical step in the plasma etching process. There are several plasma generation techniques, each with advantages and limitations. These techniques can be broadly categorized into direct and indirect plasma generation.

  • Direct Plasma Generation - It involves the application of an electric field directly to the gas to ionize its atoms or molecules. This can be achieved through various methods, such as direct current (DC) discharge, radio frequency (RF) discharge, and microwave discharge.

  • DC Discharge -  It uses a direct current between two electrodes, causing the gas to ionize and form a plasma. This method is simple and cost-effective, but it can lead to non-uniform plasma and electrode erosion due to the direct contact between the plasma and the electrodes.

  • RF discharge - It uses a high-frequency alternating current to ionize the gas. This method allows for better plasma uniformity and control than DC discharge, as the alternating current prevents charge buildup on the electrodes. However, RF discharge requires a more complex power supply and impedance-matching system.

  • Microwave Discharge - Uses high-frequency electromagnetic waves to ionize the gas. This method can generate high-density plasma with good uniformity. Still, it requires a waveguide or resonant cavity to confine and guide the microwaves, which can increase the complexity and cost of the system.

  • Indirect Plasma Generation - Requires the use of an external energy source to ionize the gas, such as electromagnetic fields or high temperatures. Examples of indirect plasma generation techniques include inductively coupled plasma (ICP) and helicon wave plasma.

  • Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) - ICP uses a high-frequency electromagnetic field generated by an induction coil to ionize the gas. This method can generate high-density, uniform plasma without direct contact between the plasma and the electrodes, reducing electrode erosion. However, ICP systems can be more complex and expensive than direct plasma generation systems.

Further Reading: Ion Milling: A Comprehensive Guide to Material Etching Techniques

The choice of plasma generation technique depends on the specific requirements of the plasma etching process, including the desired plasma properties, etching performance, system complexity, and cost considerations.

Process Parameters and Optimization

In plasma etching, several process parameters play a crucial role in determining the etching performance, including the etching rate, selectivity, and profile. These parameters can be carefully controlled and optimized to achieve the desired etching results.

  • Gas Flow Rate - The flow rate of the etching gases into the plasma chamber affects the concentration of reactive species and ions in the plasma. A higher gas flow rate can increase the etching rate but may also reduce the selectivity and uniformity of the etching process. Conversely, a lower gas flow rate can improve selectivity and uniformity. Still, it may result in a slower etching rate, which leads to the formation of a polymer layer on the substrate surface. Therefore, balancing the gas flow rate is essential for achieving the desired etching performance.

  • Operating Pressure - The plasma chamber's operating pressure influences the plasma particles' mean free path, affecting the etching directionality and uniformity. Lower pressures result in longer mean free paths, promoting anisotropic etching and improving the etching profile. However, too low a pressure can reduce the plasma density and etching rate. On the other hand, higher pressures lead to shorter mean free paths, which can increase the etching rate but may result in less directional etching and poorer profile control.

  • Power - The power applied to the plasma generation system determines the energy and density of the plasma. Higher power levels can generate higher plasma densities, leading to faster etching rates. However, excessive power also causes high-energy ion bombardment that can damage the silicon wafer and may also reduce the selectivity of the etching process. Optimizing the power level is crucial for balancing the etching rate, selectivity, and substrate integrity.

  • Temperature - The temperature of the substrate and the plasma chamber can influence the etching performance. Higher temperatures can increase the etching rate by enhancing the chemical reactions between the reactive species and the substrate material. However, excessive temperatures can cause thermal stress and damage the substrate, reducing the etching process's selectivity. Proper temperature control is essential for the desired etching performance and substrate quality.

  • Gas Chemistry - The choice and mixture of etching gases (etchant) determine the plasma chemistry, affecting the etching rate, selectivity, and profile. Different gases and gas mixtures can be used to tailor the plasma chemistry for specific materials and etching requirements. For example, fluorine-based gases are commonly used for silicon, while chlorine-based gases are used for etching metals such as aluminium and copper. Controlling the etchant levels can result in high selectivity for plasma etching.

Applications of Plasma Etching

Plasma etching is a versatile technique with various applications in various industries. Its ability to create precise, high-resolution features on various materials makes it a key process in many manufacturing and fabrication workflows.

Semiconductor Manufacturing

In the semiconductor industry, plasma etching is critical in fabricating integrated circuits (ICs). It is used to pattern the various layers of materials that make up an IC, including the semiconductor substrate, insulating layers, and metal interconnects.

The fabrication of ICs involves a series of processes, including deposition, lithography, and etching, to create the complex, multi-layer structures that constitute the IC. In the etching step, a patterned mask is used to protect certain areas of the layer while the plasma etches away the exposed areas. This process is repeated for each layer of the IC, allowing for the creation of intricate structures with feature sizes down to the nanometer scale.

Plasma etching offers several advantages in IC fabrication. Its high etching rate and selectivity enable fast and precise patterning of the layers. Its ability to etch in a single direction (anisotropic etching) allows for the creation of sharp, well-defined features, which is crucial for the miniaturization of ICs. Moreover, techniques like Pulsed Plasma Etching effectively eliminates unwanted micro-features like notching, micro-trenching, bowing, and aspect ratio-dependent etching. 

Plasma etching is also vital in semiconductor manufacturing for forming vias and trenches in interconnect fabrication. Vias connect wiring layers through small holes and trenches host wires by etching away the dielectric layer, typically of silicon dioxide with a fluorocarbon-based plasma.

In addition to IC fabrication, plasma etching is also used in the manufacturing of other semiconductor devices, such as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), photovoltaic cells, Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) devices, and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). In these applications, plasma etching creates various structures, such as microscale sensors and actuators in MEMS, p-n junctions in photovoltaic cells, and LED light-emitting layers.

MEMS Manufacturing

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are another significant area where plasma etching is extensively applied. MEMS are miniaturized devices that combine mechanical and electrical components, typically in the range of micrometers to millimetres. 

In microelectronics fabrication, plasma etching creates microscale mechanical structures, such as cantilevers, bridges, and diaphragms, and electrical structures, such as capacitors and transistors. These structures are used in various MEMS devices, including sensors, actuators, and microfluidic devices. For example, in a MEMS accelerometer, plasma etching is used to create a microscale mass and a set of capacitive plates, which can detect changes in acceleration based on the displacement of the mass and the resulting change in capacitance.

Nanotechnology Fabrication

Plasma etching also plays a crucial role in nanotechnology. It fabricates nanoscale structures and devices like nanowires, quantum dots, and nano-electromechanical systems (NEMS). These nanoscale devices have unique properties and capabilities due to their small size and the quantum effects that come into play at the nanometer scale. For instance, in the fabrication of a quantum dot, plasma etching is used to create a tiny semiconductor particle that can confine electrons in a space small enough to exhibit quantum mechanical properties.

A pattern of microchips etched on a silicon waferFig 4: A pattern of microchips etched on a silicon wafer

Biomedical Industry

In the biomedical industry, plasma etching fabricates medical devices, implants, lab-on-a-chip devices, and biosensors. For instance, small mesh tubes treat narrow or weak arteries and plasma etching is employed to create intricate patterns and structures on the stent surface. This enhances the stent's mechanical properties and biocompatibility, improving its performance and patient outcomes.

Aerospace Industry

The aerospace industry also benefits from plasma etching, particularly in the manufacturing of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are used in navigation and control systems. These MEMS devices, which include accelerometers and gyroscopes, rely on the precision and control offered by plasma etching to create their intricate, microscale structures. The high aspect ratio and anisotropic etching capabilities of plasma etching are particularly valuable in these applications.

Optical Industry

Plasma etching fabricates optical components such as lenses, waveguides, and diffraction gratings. The process allows for creating high-precision, nanoscale features on these components, enabling the manipulation of light in ways that traditional optical components cannot achieve. For example, in the production of diffractive optical elements, plasma etching is used to create complex, sub-wavelength structures that can diffract and focus light in specific ways.

Further Reading: Understanding Plasma Etching: Detailed Insights into Its Techniques, Uses, and Equipment Maintenance

Environmental and Safety Considerations

Plasma etching, like many industrial processes, has environmental and safety considerations that must be addressed. These include the handling and disposal of etching gases, the generation of waste products, and the safety of the operating personnel.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of plasma etching primarily stems from the etching gases used in the process. Many of these gases are greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming when released into the atmosphere. For example, sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs), commonly used in plasma etching, have several thousand times higher global warming potentials than carbon dioxide.

In addition to their global warming potential, some etching gases are also harmful to the ozone layer as Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), once widely used in plasma etching, are known to deplete the ozone layer and have been largely phased out due to international regulations.

In the photovoltaic industry, plasma etching involves using highly toxic, corrosive, and flammable materials like chlorides, bromides, and fluorides. These materials pose a threat not only to the environment but also to human lives. 

To mitigate these environmental impacts, various strategies can be employed. These include using less harmful etching gases, recycling or recreating spent gases, and treating waste products to render them less harmful. Additionally, process optimization can reduce the amount of etching gases used and waste generated, further reducing the environmental impact of the process.

Safety Precautions

Safety is a paramount concern in plasma etching operations. The process involves using high-energy plasma, hazardous gases, and potentially toxic etched materials, all of which pose risks to operating personnel and require appropriate safety measures.

One of the primary safety risks in plasma etching is handling etching gases. Many of these gases are toxic, corrosive, or reactive and can cause harm if inhaled, come into contact with skin, or react with other substances.

To mitigate this risk, etching gases should be properly stored and handled, and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, safety glasses, and respirators, should be used. The plasma etching system should also be equipped with gas detection and alarm systems to alert operators in case of a gas leak.

A worker wearing the essential PPEs while working with a plasma cutterFig 5: A worker wearing the essential PPEs while working with a plasma cutter

The high-energy plasma used in the etching process also poses safety risks. The plasma can generate ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can cause eye and skin injuries. To protect against this, the plasma chamber should be shielded to block UV radiation, and operators should wear UV-protective eyewear. The plasma can also generate electromagnetic fields, which can interfere with electronic devices and potentially cause harm to individuals with pacemakers or other electronic medical devices. 

Conclusion

Plasma etching is critical in various industries, from semiconductor manufacturing to biomedical applications. Its ability to create precise, high-resolution features on various materials makes it a versatile and valuable tool in many manufacturing and fabrication processes. However, the process also has environmental and safety considerations that must be addressed, including the handling and disposal of etching gases, the generation of waste products, and the safety of the operating personnel. By understanding these aspects and implementing appropriate measures, the benefits of plasma etching can be fully realized while minimizing its potential risks and impacts.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. What is plasma etching? 

Plasma etching is used in various industries to create precise, high-resolution features on various materials. It involves using high-energy plasma and etching gases to remove material from a substrate selectively.

  1. What are the applications of plasma etching? 

Plasma etching is used in various applications, including the fabrication of integrated circuits in the semiconductor industry, the creation of microscale and nanoscale structures in MEMS and nanotechnology, and the manufacturing of devices in the biomedical, aerospace, and optical industries.

  1. What are the environmental impacts of plasma etching? 

The environmental impacts of plasma etching primarily stem from the etching gases used in the process, many of which are greenhouse gases. The process also generates waste products, which can be hazardous and require proper disposal.

  1. What safety precautions are needed in plasma etching? 

Safety precautions in plasma etching include the proper storage and handling of etching gases, the use of personal protective equipment, the shielding of the plasma chamber to block UV radiation and electromagnetic fields, and the proper collection and disposal of etched materials. Regular maintenance and inspection of the plasma etching system, proper training of operating personnel, and adherence to safety regulations are also important.

  1. How can the environmental impact of plasma etching be reduced? 

The environmental impact of plasma etching can be reduced by using less harmful etching gases, recycling or reclaiming spent gases, treating waste products to render them less harmful, and optimizing the process to reduce the amount of etching gases used and waste generated.

References

[1] J.H. Wang. (2012), “Coatings for Biomedical Applications” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/materials-science/plasma-etching

[2] Gomathi Nageswaran, Saravanakumar Jagannathan. (2019), “Non-Thermal Plasma Technology for Polymeric Materials”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/materials-science/ion-implantation 

 [3] Zai-fa Zhou; Qing-an Huang; Wei-hua Li; Chi Zhu. (2006). “Plasma Etching Process Simulation for MEMS and IC Fabrication based on a Cellular Automata Method” 

https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/4098429 

[4] Demetre J Economou. (2014), “Pulsed plasma etching for semiconductor Manufacturing” Topical Review (uh.edu)

[5] T Chiad, Bahaa & Al-zubaydi, Thair & Khalaf, Mohammed & Khudiar, Ausama. (2010). Characterization of low pressure plasma-dc glow discharges (Ar, SF6 and SF6/He) for Si etching. Indian Journal of Pure and Applied Physics. 48. 723-730.  

https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Example-of-anisotropic-dry-etching-and-isotropic-wet-etching_fig2_289282527 

[6] Difference Between Isotropic And Anisotropic - Differences explained on BYJU’S (byjus.com)

[7] Plasma etching: Safety, health and environmental considerations, Progress in Photovoltaics: Research & Applications | 10.1002/pip.4670030205 | DeepDyve

More by Muhammad Sufyan

Meet Sufyan - an accomplished Electronics Engineer and dedicated Educator who teaches at Mohammad Ali Jinnah University in Karachi, Pakistan. With a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering, Sufyan specializes in teaching courses on Microcontrollers, Digital Electronics, and Control Systems. He has...