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What is the maximum power at which I can safely sputter my target?

Roughly three-quarters of the power applied to a sputter gun ends up heating the coolant water. Understanding the heat transfer processes and heat dissipation is critical to successful sputtering. For a given sputter gun, four factors determine the maximum power density the target will accept: (1) the type of target material; (2) its thermal conductivity; (2) heat transfer from target to gun’s cooling water; and (4) the water’s flow rate. The type of material determines its brittleness, thermal expansion coefficient, fragility, etc which determines the target’s response to thermal stress. Applying a high power density to a material with a poor thermal conductivity (compared to, say Cu or Au) creates a large temperature difference between the target’s top and bottom surfaces causing thermal stress. For fragile materials (such as some ceramics and semiconductors) stress may crack the target. For stronger, ductile materials (many metals) the target may melt. The efficiency of target cooling depends on the ‘thermal resistance’ between the target’s back surface (the surface not being sputtered) to the gun’s cooling water. Directly-cooled targets, where the water flow is in contact with the target’s back surface, have low thermal resistance. By comparison, indirectly-cooled targets (which are clamped to a copper plate in the sun and cooled by water flowing across the plate’s back surface, not the target’s) have high thermal resistance. At the atomic level, the interface between target’s back surface and copper plate’s front surface has a small contact area for thermal conduction. Over the remaining area, heat transfer is by radiation. (Interestingly, the thermal resistance of such an interface under vacuum may be 4-10 higher than its thermal resistance in air.) Water flow through the sputtering gun should be sufficient to remove the total power. As a guideline 1 gal/min (~4 L/min) dissipating 4 kW power causes a rise in the water temperature of ~15C. For coolant liquids other than water, remember to factor in the liquid’s specific heat. Suggested guidelines for calculating maximum power are: for a high thermal conductivity, directly-cooled, metal target such as Al, the maximum power density is ~250 W/in^2 for the target’s (front-side) surface area. For other types of (directly-cooled) targets, de-rate the maximum power density based on the target materials thermal conductivity compared to aluminum. As an example, for a target with a thermal conductivity 1/10th that of Al, the maximum power density should be 25 W/in^2. For a high thermal conductivity, indirectly-cooled, metal target such as Al, the power density limit is ~100 W/in^2 for the target’s (front-side) surface area. Again, de-rate this power density for materials with lower thermal conductivities. Two important final points: (1) To prevent target cracking, fragile targets may need to have maximum power density de-rated even further than indicated by the relative thermal conductivities; and (2) some target materials crack no matter what power density is used.

About the author

Julissa Green graduated from the University of Texas studying applied chemistry. She started her journalism life as a chemistry specialist in Stanford Advanced Materials (SAM) since 2016 and she has been fascinated by this fast growing industry ever since. If you have any particular topics of interest, or you have any questions, you can reach her at julissa@samaterials.com.