A reactive-ion etching (RIE) process for smoothing a silicon substrate has been devised. The process is especially useful for smoothing those silicon areas that have been exposed by etching a pattern of holes in a layer of silicon dioxide that covers the substrate. Applications in which one could utilize smooth silicon surfaces like those produced by this process include fabrication of optical waveguides, epitaxial deposition of silicon on selected areas of silicon substrates, and preparation of silicon substrates for deposition of adherent metal layers.

During etching away of a layer of SiO2 that covers an Si substrate, a polymer becomes deposited on the substrate, and the substrate surface becomes rough (roughness height ≈ 50 nm) as a result of over-etching or of deposition of the polymer. While it is possible to smooth a silicon substrate by wet chemical etching, the undesired consequences of wet chemical etching can include compromising the integrity of the SiO2 sidewalls and undercutting of the adjacent areas of the silicon dioxide that are meant to be left intact.

The present RIE process results in anisotropic etching that removes the polymer and reduces height of roughness of the silicon substrate to <10 nm while leaving the SiO2 sidewalls intact and vertical. Control over substrate versus sidewall etching (in particular, preferential etching of the substrate) is achieved through selection of process parameters, including gas flow, power, and pressure. Such control is not uniformly and repeatably achievable in wet chemical etching. The recipe for the present RIE process is the following:

Etch 1 — A mixture of CF4 and O2 gases flowing at rates of 25 to 75 and 75 to 125 standard cubic centimeters per minute (stdcm3/min), respectively; power between 44 and 55 W; and pressure between 45 and 55 mtorr (between 6.0 and 7.3 Pa). The etch rate lies between ≈3 and ≈6 nm/minute.

Etch 2 — O2 gas flowing at 75 to 125 stdcm3/min, power between 44 and 55 W, and pressure between 50 and 100 mtorr (between 6.7 and 13.3 Pa).

This work was done by Tasha Turner and Chi Wu of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Materials category.

In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to

Intellectual Property group
Mail Stop 202-233
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, CA 91109
(818) 354-2240

Refer to NPO-20777, volume and number of this NASA Tech Briefs issue, and the page number.

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Process for Smoothing an Si Substrate After Etching of SiO2

(reference NPO-20777) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

Don't have an account? Sign up here.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2003 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from the archives here.