Field-emission devices (cold cathodes) having low electron affinities can be fabricated through lattice- mismatched epitaxial growth of nitrides of elements from group III of the periodic table. Field emission of electrons from solid surfaces is typically utilized in vacuum microelectronic devices, including some display devices. The present field-emission devices and the method of fabricating them were developed to satisfy needs to reduce the cost of fabricating field emitters, make them compatible with established techniques for deposition of and on silicon, and enable monolithic integration of field emitters with silicon-based driving circuitry.

In fabricating a device of this type, one deposits a nitride of one or more group-III elements on a substrate of (111) silicon or other suitable material. One example of a suitable deposition process is chemical vapor deposition in a reactor that contains plasma generated by use of electron cyclotron resonance. Under properly chosen growth conditions, the large mismatch between the crystal lattices of the substrate and the nitride causes strains to accumulate in the growing nitride film, such that the associated stresses cause the film to crack. The cracks lie in planes parallel to the direction of growth, so that the growing nitride film becomes divided into microscopic growing single-crystal columns. The outer ends of the fully-grown columns can serve as field-emission tips. By virtue of their chemical compositions and crystalline structures, the columns have low work functions and high electrical conductivities, both of which are desirable for field emission of electrons.

From examination of transmission electron micrographs of a prototype device, the average column width was determined to be about 100 nm and the sharpness of the tips was determined to be characterized by a dimension somewhat less than 100 nm. The areal density of the columns was found to about 5 × 109 cm–2 — about 4 to 5 orders of magnitude greater than the areal density of tips in prior field-emission devices. The electric field necessary to turn on the emission current and the current per tip in this device are both lower than in prior field-emission devices, such that it becomes possible to achieve longer operational lifetime. Moreover, notwithstanding the lower current per tip, because of the greater areal density of tips, it becomes possible to achieve greater current density averaged over the cathode area.

The thickness of the grown nitride film (equivalently, the length of the columns) could lie between about 0.5 μm and a few microns; in any event, a thickness of about 1 μm is sufficient and costs less than do greater thicknesses.

It may be possible to grow nitride emitter columns on glass or other substrate materials that cost less than silicon does. What is important in the choice of substrate material is the difference between the substrate and nitride crystalline structures. Inasmuch as the deposition process is nondestructive, an ability to grow emitter columns on a variety of materials would be advantageous in that it would facilitate the integration of field-emitter structures onto previously processed integrated circuits.

Doping seems to play an important role in the field-emission properties of the columns. The nitride in the prototype device was doped with silicon at a concentration of 5 × 1019 cm–3. Other elements from groups II, IV, and VI of the periodic table could be used as alternative or additional dopants. Doping levels could range from about 1016 to 1021 cm–3.

This work was done by Abdelhak Bensaoula and Igor Berishev of the University of Houston for Marshall Space Flight Center. For more information, contact Sammy Nabors, MSFC Commercialization Lead at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. MFS-32514-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2008 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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