A development effort underway at the time of reporting the information for this article is devoted to increasing the sensitivity of microchannel plates (MCPs) as detectors of photons and ions by coating the MCPs with nitrides of elements in period III of the periodic table. Conventional MCPs are relatively insensitive to slowly moving, large-mass ions — for example, ions of biomolecules under analysis in mass spectrometers. The idea underlying this development is to coat an MCP to reduce its work function (decrease its electron affinity) in order to increase both (1) the emission of electrons in response to impingement of low-energy, large-mass ions and (2) the multiplying effect of secondary electron emission.

Of particular interest as coating materials having appropriately low or even negative electron affinities are gallium nitride, aluminum nitride, and ternary alloys of general composition AlxGal–xN (where 0<1). These materials exhibit attractively high degrees of chemical, mechanical, and thermal stability plus acceptably high resistance to sputtering. The electron-excitation cross sections of these materials are expected to exceed those of several other materials (including diamond) that are, variously, in use or under development for the same purpose. Moreover, by doping these materials with silicon, one can render them partly electrically conductive, thereby suppressing the undesired accumulation of electric charge that could otherwise occur during bombardment by ions.

For experiments, thin films of AlN and GaN — both undoped and doped with Si — were deposited on commercial MCPs by radio-frequency molecular beam epitaxy (also known as plasma assisted molecular-beam epitaxy) at temperatures <200 °C. This deposition technique is particularly suitable because (1) MCPs cannot withstand the higher deposition-substrate temperatures used to decompose constituent compounds in some other deposition techniques and (2) in this technique, the constituent Al, Ga, and N are supplied in elemental form, so that there is no need for thermal decomposition at the substrate surface. The nitride films thus formed were, variously, amorphous or polycrystalline. The nitride films were coated with surface layers of gold <100 Å thick.

The MCPs were tested in a standard configuration in which the output stage of a first MCP was coupled to the input stage of a second MCP. Each pair of MCPs was mounted in a standard holder that included front and back contact rings and an anode for collecting the output electrons of the second MCP. The MCP pairs were biased at potentials between 1.7 and 1.9 kV, and count rates measured after preamplification and discrimination. To enable a direct comparison, in one pair, the second MCP was uncoated while the first MCP was coated over half its surface. The coated and uncoated sides of the half-coated MCP were exposed to fluxes of argon ions at kinetic energies of 1.0 and 0.5 keV. At 1.0 keV, the count rate for the coated side was about 2.3 times greater than that for the uncoated side; at 0.5 keV, the count rate for the coated side was about 1.8 times greater than that for the uncoated side.

This work was done by Abdelhakim Bensaoula, David Starikov, and Chris Boney of Integrated Micro Sensors, Inc. and Abdelhak Bensaoula of the University of Houston for Goddard Space Flight Center. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Electronics/Computers category. GSC-14936-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2006 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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