Print 61 comment(s) - last by bldckstark.. on Feb 5 at 12:54 PM

The new self-sustaining sputterer uses a metal plasma instead of a noble gas one. The metal plasma glows green in this picture, while the metal ion source glows white as it emits ions.   (Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

A traditional sputterer uses a magnetic field between a target semiconductor (thick brown disk, bottom) and a metal ion source (brown, top). A plasma gas such as argon (pink) knocks ions, neutral atoms off the metal (brown dots), and electrons (white) off the metal source, yielding a metal layer on the circuit.  (Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

The new method improves this power by adding more power, which allows it to do away with the argon and create a self-sustaining pure metal plasma (brown dots are metal ions, white are electrons). This metal ion plasma deposits a virtually voidless layer, allowing high-performing nanoscale circuits to be easily produced.  (Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)
New sputtering approach allows nanoscale deposition, new ion engines

Metal interconnects and features are a critical component of modern silicon circuits.  In space, NASA and other space agencies have prototyped new ion engine technologies which promise more affordable and faster propulsion to distant targets.  What both technologies have in common is the need to create ions to drive their key processes.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory have devised an improved method to produce more metal ions, allowing it to create better circuits, and unlock other applications.

Metal ion creation in the semiconductor industry relies on a technique called sputtering.  Traditional sputtering relies on a gas such as argon being heated to plasma and then contained by a magnetic field between a layer of metal and a target circuit.  The plasma knocks metal ions off the metal source, creating a current of metal ions which flows towards the circuit, depositing metal on the disk.

High Power Impulse Magnetron Sputtering (HIPIMS) was invented in the 1990s as a means of improving this process.  It uses a more powerful magnetic field to accelerate the plasma to higher speeds and to allow some metal ions to return to the metal source, knocking off more metal ions in a chain reaction of sorts.  They key limitation to this process was power.  More power means better performance, but in commercial semiconductor production typically only 1 kW magnets can be used, and they require water cooling.  The result is a sputtering process that is not self-sustaining, though it last slightly longer.

Researchers at LBNL believe they have created the world's first self-sustained sputtering process.  Their key is to use high power impulses, rather than a steady higher current, which could melt the magnet. 

Andre Anders, a senior scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Accelerator and Fusion Research Division, describes, "Three quantities determine the self-sputtering threshold.  One is the probability that a sputtered atom gets ionized. Another is the probability that the new ion returns to the target. Finally, there’s the actual yield of atoms from self-sputtering. Multiply these together and you get the self-sputtering parameter, which is symbolized by the Greek letter pi.  When pi equals unity, you reach a new steady state (provided) that the power supply can keep up.  We use a special power supply, up to 500 kilowatts peak power. If the system wants power, we give it power!"

The process is also unique in that the power is high enough that it can create a thick plasma of pure metal ions, eliminating the need for argon or other gases in the sputtering process.  The result high power continuous sputter has many benefits including cost cuts in chemicals, better circuits, and less mechanical parts (by removing the need for gas injection).

For very small circuits, that will soon arise as die shrinks continue, depositing metal using previous methods might be infeasible as they leave regular voids that on a nanoscale could break connections.  With the new approach, the thicker metal ion plasma yields in essence void less deposition, allowing for nanoscale designs with excellent electrical character.

Another potential use of the new sputterer is in spacecraft.  Bottles of gas or liquids are bulky and ultimately increase weight by requiring more metal to enclose their greater volume.  A metal ion source, using the new method would be self sustaining and much more compact, lowering the weight and cost of launch for ion engine powered spacecraft.

The method also works in a vacuum, so it could also be used for metal ion sputtering in spacing, aiding orbiting construction platforms one day.  The method could also be applied on Earth to allow for the first ever successful sputtering of niobium, a tough metal to sputter.  This would allow for superconducting cavities of future particle accelerators to be coated with this metal for improved performance, unlock a plethora of new research possibilities.

In short, the new self-sustained sputtering method is a breakthrough which will help advance a number of fields, and if properly implemented, should become an integral technical advance of the new century.

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RE: Great article!
By Master Kenobi on 2/2/2009 12:08:50 PM , Rating: 5
Ditto. Our first interplanetary ships will be nuclear fusion or fission based, and use ion drives. It's time to get a spacedock in orbit so we can begin construction!

RE: Great article!
By FITCamaro on 2/2/09, Rating: 0
RE: Great article!
By HotFoot on 2/2/2009 1:24:08 PM , Rating: 5
Can this please be considered part of the 'infrastructure' portion of the economic recovery plan?

RE: Great article!
By FITCamaro on 2/2/2009 2:59:58 PM , Rating: 1
That made me laugh and cry.

RE: Great article!
By PogoThePrez on 2/2/2009 3:13:59 PM , Rating: 1
Any bets the first US spaceship will be called the USS Enterprise? That or the Battlestar Galactica.

RE: Great article!
By rcc on 2/2/2009 3:57:17 PM , Rating: 3
At the rate we're (not) going, it'll be Potemkin, or Stalin, or.... you get the idea.

RE: Great article!
By StevoLincolnite on 2/2/2009 6:10:23 PM , Rating: 2
Hows about the Prometheus? (Wait that got blown up...) - Alright Daedalus it is!

RE: Great article!
By Tsuwamono on 2/2/2009 6:52:13 PM , Rating: 2
Or the O'Neil... that would be bad ass.

RE: Great article!
By StevoLincolnite on 2/3/2009 2:32:05 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah but that's Asgard and that got Destroyed before it was %100 completed.

RE: Great article!
By 9nails on 2/2/2009 7:45:16 PM , Rating: 3
Unless General Motors develops it... They already have a car called the "Ion" manufactured for the car company "Saturn." Perhaps the reverse would be a fun twist of irony, calling the Spaceship "Saturn" with an "Ion" drive?

RE: Great article!
By waffle911 on 2/3/2009 3:17:46 AM , Rating: 2
Well... to be technical and nit-picky, Saturn discontinued the Ion a couple of years ago, because in all honesty, the car was crap. So they replaced it with the Aura (although it's larger) and the Astra (about the same size as the Ion, only a hatchback). Strangely enough though, the Ion and its better-built chassis mate, the Chevy Cobalt, were based on the same platform as the European Opel/Vauxhall Astra to begin with - the Cobalt even shares the same door panels (among other body parts).

RE: Great article!
By bldckstark on 2/5/2009 12:54:39 PM , Rating: 2
They were built upon the same platform, but the manufacturing processes were different. The U.S. versions were assembled using standard American manufacturing processes, and the Opel was built using your average European processes. As you probably are aware, the American small car processes are crap because they cut costs on everything to try to make money. Never works, because not enough people are willing to buy a cheap car that is of inferior quality. They want a cheap good car. Hence the domination of the imports in the U.S. economy car market.

If the American OEM's would price their cars competitively they would sell fine. If people THINK your car is of inferior quality, then price it that way or increase the warranty coverage. Instead of offering $3k rebates on a car, just drop the price altogether and undercut the competition.

Of course that assumes that there will be an American automotive manufacturer in the future.

RE: Great article!
By Fritzr on 2/2/2009 8:39:45 PM , Rating: 2
The first space shuttle is named Enterprise. It is the only member of the shuttle fleet that has never been in space.

Galactica is still available though. Battlestar was the ship type. Calling a new ship "Battlestar Galactica" is like calling a new spacecraft "Aircraft Carrier Enterprise" or if naming for the Star Trek vessel, "Constitution Class Cruiser Enterprise"

RE: Great article!
By FITCamaro on 2/3/2009 7:53:35 AM , Rating: 3
You point about the Space Shuttle Enterprise? There's also an air craft carrier called Enterprise.

RE: Great article!
By LordanSS on 2/3/2009 3:46:26 AM , Rating: 2
I thought there was an Enterprise, the prototype for the space shuttles... no?

RE: Great article!
By Major HooHaa on 2/5/2009 7:14:38 AM , Rating: 2
To my knowledge the prototype for the shuttle was named Enterprise, a quick check on wikipedia confirms it.

I guess you can call a space shuttle and a ship the same name, as there is not much chance of some coastguard employee getting the two mixed up.

RE: Great article!
By MrPoletski on 2/3/2009 7:03:44 AM , Rating: 2
Any bets the first US spaceship will be called the USS Enterprise? That or the Battlestar Galactica.

Given this is the USA we're talking about, I think it'll be battlestar...

RE: Great article!
By FITCamaro on 2/3/2009 7:55:23 AM , Rating: 2
And the first person it'll kill will be you.

Seriously. Get a life.

RE: Great article!
By foolsgambit11 on 2/3/2009 2:00:40 PM , Rating: 2
Pot, meet Kettle.

RE: Great article!
By Ytsejamer1 on 2/3/2009 9:51:49 AM , Rating: 2
I gotta say the ship will likely be named Enterprise. Hopefully in this case, we'll see some guy's vision and hopes of the future become some sort of reality. It would be a remarkable example of fiction becoming fact.

RE: Great article!
By scrapsma54 on 2/4/2009 10:03:30 AM , Rating: 2
Uh guys how can you forget the TIE fighter! it stands for twin ion engine does it not?

RE: Great article!
By winterspan on 2/2/2009 8:36:57 PM , Rating: 3
Anyone have any information on the economics of running an Ion drive with solar energy? Could enormous, highly efficient solar panels be enough to run an Ion engine to Mars?

RE: Great article!
By melgross on 2/3/2009 1:00:00 PM , Rating: 2
Fission anyway. Fusion may always be too big and heavy for that purpose, assuming they ever get one working.

Right now, radioisotope generators are used, but even though they can put out a good amount of power, it's not enough.

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