Etching (microfabrication)

Last updated
Etching tanks used to perform Piranha, Hydrofluoric acid or RCA clean on 4-inch wafer batches at LAAS technological facility in Toulouse, France Wet etching tanks at LAAS 0465.jpg
Etching tanks used to perform Piranha, Hydrofluoric acid or RCA clean on 4-inch wafer batches at LAAS technological facility in Toulouse, France

Etching is used in microfabrication to chemically remove layers from the surface of a wafer during manufacturing. Etching is a critically important process module, and every wafer undergoes many etching steps before it is complete.

Microfabrication processes of fabrication of miniature structures

Microfabrication is the process of fabricating miniature structures of micrometre scales and smaller. Historically, the earliest microfabrication processes were used for integrated circuit fabrication, also known as "semiconductor manufacturing" or "semiconductor device fabrication". In the last two decades microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), microsystems, micromachines and their subfields, microfluidics/lab-on-a-chip, optical MEMS, RF MEMS, PowerMEMS, BioMEMS and their extension into nanoscale have re-used, adapted or extended microfabrication methods. Flat-panel displays and solar cells are also using similar techniques.

Wafer (electronics) thin slice of semiconductor material used in the fabrication of integrated circuits

A wafer, also called a slice or substrate, is a thin slice of semiconductor material, such as a crystalline silicon, used in electronics for the fabrication of integrated circuits and in photovoltaics for conventional, wafer-based solar cells. The wafer serves as the substrate for microelectronic devices built in and over the wafer and undergoes many microfabrication process steps such as doping or ion implantation, etching, deposition of various materials, and photolithographic patterning. Finally, the individual microcircuits are separated (dicing) and packaged.


For many etch steps, part of the wafer is protected from the etchant by a "masking" material which resists etching. In some cases, the masking material is a photoresist which has been patterned using photolithography. Other situations require a more durable mask, such as silicon nitride.


A photoresist is a light-sensitive material used in several processes, such as photolithography and photoengraving, to form a patterned coating on a surface. This process is crucial in the electronic industry.

Photolithography, also termed optical lithography or UV lithography, is a process used in microfabrication to pattern parts of a thin film or the bulk of a substrate. It uses light to transfer a geometric pattern from a photomask to a light-sensitive chemical "photoresist", or simply "resist," on the substrate. A series of chemical treatments then either engraves the exposure pattern into the material or enables deposition of a new material in the desired pattern upon the material underneath the photo resist. For example, in complex integrated circuits, a modern CMOS wafer will go through the photolithographic cycle up to 50 times.

Silicon nitride trioxyde

Silicon nitride is a chemical compound of the elements silicon and nitrogen. Si
is the most thermodynamically stable of the silicon nitrides. Hence, Si
is the most commercially important of the silicon nitrides and is generally understood as what is being referred to where the term "silicon nitride" is used. It is a white, high-melting-point solid that is relatively chemically inert, being attacked by dilute HF and hot H
. It is very hard. It has a high thermal stability.

Figures of merit

If the etch is intended to make a cavity in a material, the depth of the cavity may be controlled approximately using the etching time and the known etch rate. More often, though, etching must entirely remove the top layer of a multilayer structure, without damaging the underlying or masking layers. The etching system's ability to do this depends on the ratio of etch rates in the two materials (selectivity).

Some etches undercut the masking layer and form cavities with sloping sidewalls. The distance of undercutting is called bias. Etchants with large bias are called isotropic , because they erode the substrate equally in all directions. Modern processes greatly prefer anisotropic etches, because they produce sharp, well-controlled features.

In manufacturing, an undercut is a special type of recessed surface. In turning, it refers to a recess in a diameter. In machining, it refers to a recess in a corner. In molding, it refers to a feature that cannot be molded using only a single pull mold. In printed circuit board construction, it refers to the portion of the copper that is etched away under the photoresist. In welding, it refers to undesired melting and removal of metal near the weld bead.

Selectivity Etch selectivity.png Blue: layer to remain
  1. A poorly selective etch removes the top layer, but also attacks the underlying material.
  2. A highly selective etch leaves the underlying material unharmed.
Isotropy Etch anisotropy.png Red: masking layer; yellow: layer to be removed
  1. A perfectly isotropic etch produces round sidewalls.
  2. A perfectly anisotropic etch produces vertical sidewalls.

Etching media and technology

The two fundamental types of etchants are liquid-phase ("wet") and plasma-phase ("dry"). Each of these exists in several varieties.

Liquid liquid object

A liquid is a nearly incompressible fluid that conforms to the shape of its container but retains a (nearly) constant volume independent of pressure. As such, it is one of the four fundamental states of matter, and is the only state with a definite volume but no fixed shape. A liquid is made up of tiny vibrating particles of matter, such as atoms, held together by intermolecular bonds. Water is, by far, the most common liquid on Earth. Like a gas, a liquid is able to flow and take the shape of a container. Most liquids resist compression, although others can be compressed. Unlike a gas, a liquid does not disperse to fill every space of a container, and maintains a fairly constant density. A distinctive property of the liquid state is surface tension, leading to wetting phenomena.

Plasma (physics) plasma object

Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter, and was first described by chemist Irving Langmuir in the 1920s. Plasma can be artificially generated by heating or subjecting a neutral gas to a strong electromagnetic field to the point where an ionized gaseous substance becomes increasingly electrically conductive, and long-range electromagnetic fields dominate the behaviour of the matter.

Etching, simplified animation of etchant action on a copper sheet with mask.gif

Wet etching

Radiation hardened die of the 1886VE10 microcontroller prior to metalization etching 1886VE10-HD.jpg
Radiation hardened die of the 1886VE10 microcontroller prior to metalization etching
Radiation hardened die of the 1886VE10 microcontroller after a metalization etching process has been used 1886VE10-Si-HD.jpg
Radiation hardened die of the 1886VE10 microcontroller after a metalization etching process has been used

The first etching processes used liquid-phase ("wet") etchants. The wafer can be immersed in a bath of etchant, which must be agitated to achieve good process control. For instance, buffered hydrofluoric acid (BHF) is used commonly to etch silicon dioxide over a silicon substrate.

Silicon dioxide chemical compound

Silicon dioxide, also known as silica, silicic acid or silicic acid anydride is an oxide of silicon with the chemical formula SiO2, most commonly found in nature as quartz and in various living organisms. In many parts of the world, silica is the major constituent of sand. Silica is one of the most complex and most abundant families of materials, existing as a compound of several minerals and as synthetic product. Notable examples include fused quartz, fumed silica, silica gel, and aerogels. It is used in structural materials, microelectronics (as an electrical insulator), and as components in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Different specialised etchants can be used to characterise the surface etched.

Wet etchants are usually isotropic, which leads to large bias when etching thick films. They also require the disposal of large amounts of toxic waste. For these reasons, they are seldom used in state-of-the-art processes. However, the photographic developer used for photoresist resembles wet etching.

Photographic developer chemical that makes the latent image on the film or print visible

In the processing of photographic films, plates or papers, the photographic developer is one or more chemicals that convert the latent image to a visible image. Developing agents achieve this conversion by reducing the silver halides, which are pale-colored, into silver metal, which is black. The conversion occurs within the gelatine matrix. The special feature of photography is that the developer only acts on those particles of silver halides that have been exposed to light. Generally, the longer a developer is allowed to work, the darker the image.

As an alternative to immersion, single wafer machines use the Bernoulli principle to employ a gas (usually, pure nitrogen) to cushion and protect one side of the wafer while etchant is applied to the other side. It can be done to either the front side or back side. The etch chemistry is dispensed on the top side when in the machine and the bottom side is not affected. This etch method is particularly effective just before "backend" processing (BEOL), where wafers are normally very much thinner after wafer backgrinding, and very sensitive to thermal or mechanical stress. Etching a thin layer of even a few micrometres will remove microcracks produced during backgrinding resulting in the wafer having dramatically increased strength and flexibility without breaking.

Anisotropic wet etching (Orientation dependent etching)

An anisotropic wet etch on a silicon wafer creates a cavity with a trapezoidal cross-section. The bottom of the cavity is a {100} plane (see Miller indices), and the sides are {111} planes. The blue material is an etch mask, and the green material is silicon. Anisotropic wet etching.svg
An anisotropic wet etch on a silicon wafer creates a cavity with a trapezoidal cross-section. The bottom of the cavity is a {100} plane (see Miller indices), and the sides are {111} planes. The blue material is an etch mask, and the green material is silicon.

Some wet etchants etch crystalline materials at very different rates depending upon which crystal face is exposed. In single-crystal materials (e.g. silicon wafers), this effect can allow very high anisotropy, as shown in the figure. The term "crystallographic etching" is synonymous with "anisotropic etching along crystal planes".

However, for some non-crystal materials like glass, there are unconventional ways to etch in an anisotropic manner. [1] The authors employs multistream laminar flow that contains etching non-etching solutions to fabricate a glass groove. The etching solution at the center is flanked by non-etching solutions and the area contacting etching solutions is limited by the surrounding non-etching solutions. Thereby, the direction of etching is mainly vertical to the surface of glass. The SEM images demonstrate the breaking of conventional theoretical limit of aspect ratio (width/height=0.5) and contribute a two-fold improvement (width/height=1).

Several anisotropic wet etchants are available for silicon, all of them hot aqueous caustics. For instance, potassium hydroxide (KOH) displays an etch rate selectivity 400 times higher in <100> crystal directions than in <111> directions. EDP (an aqueous solution of ethylene diamine and pyrocatechol), displays a <100>/<111> selectivity of 17X, does not etch silicon dioxide as KOH does, and also displays high selectivity between lightly doped and heavily boron-doped (p-type) silicon. Use of these etchants on wafers that already contain CMOS integrated circuits requires protecting the circuitry. KOH may introduce mobile potassium ions into silicon dioxide, and EDP is highly corrosive and carcinogenic, so care is required in their use. Tetramethylammonium hydroxide (TMAH) presents a safer alternative than EDP, with a 37X selectivity between {100} and {111} planes in silicon.

Etching a (100) silicon surface through a rectangular hole in a masking material, for example a hole in a layer of silicon nitride, creates a pit with flat sloping {111}-oriented sidewalls and a flat (100)-oriented bottom. The {111}-oriented sidewalls have an angle to the surface of the wafer of:

If the etching is continued "to completion", i.e. until the flat bottom disappears, the pit becomes a trench with a V-shaped cross section. If the original rectangle was a perfect square, the pit when etched to completion displays a pyramidal shape.

The undercut, δ, under an edge of the masking material is given by:


where Rxxx is the etch rate in the <xxx> direction, T is the etch time, D is the etch depth and S is the anisotropy of the material and etchant.

Different etchants have different anisotropies. Below is a table of common anisotropic etchants for silicon:

EtchantOperating temp (°C)R100 (μm/min)S=R100/R111Mask materials
Ethylenediamine pyrocatechol
(EDP) [2]
1100.4717 SiO2, Si3N4, Au, Cr, Ag, Cu
Potassium hydroxide/Isopropyl alcohol
501.0400Si3N4, SiO2 (etches at 2.8 nm/min)
Tetramethylammonium hydroxide
(TMAH) [3]
800.637Si3N4, SiO2

Plasma etching

Simplified illustration of dry etching using positive photoresist during a photolithography process in semiconductor microfabrication. Note: Not to scale. Photolithography etching process.svg
Simplified illustration of dry etching using positive photoresist during a photolithography process in semiconductor microfabrication. Note: Not to scale.

Modern VLSI processes avoid wet etching, and use plasma etching instead. Plasma etchers can operate in several modes by adjusting the parameters of the plasma. Ordinary plasma etching operates between 0.1 and 5 Torr. (This unit of pressure, commonly used in vacuum engineering, equals approximately 133.3 pascals.) The plasma produces energetic free radicals, neutrally charged, that react at the surface of the wafer. Since neutral particles attack the wafer from all angles, this process is isotropic.

Plasma etching can be isotropic, i.e., exhibiting a lateral undercut rate on a patterned surface approximately the same as its downward etch rate, or can be anisotropic, i.e., exhibiting a smaller lateral undercut rate than its downward etch rate. Such anisotropy is maximized in deep reactive ion etching. The use of the term anisotropy for plasma etching should not be conflated with the use of the same term when referring to orientation-dependent etching.

The source gas for the plasma usually contains small molecules rich in chlorine or fluorine. For instance, carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) etches silicon and aluminium, and trifluoromethane etches silicon dioxide and silicon nitride. A plasma containing oxygen is used to oxidize ("ash") photoresist and facilitate its removal.

Ion milling, or sputter etching, uses lower pressures, often as low as 10−4 Torr (10 mPa). It bombards the wafer with energetic ions of noble gases, often Ar +, which knock atoms from the substrate by transferring momentum. Because the etching is performed by ions, which approach the wafer approximately from one direction, this process is highly anisotropic. On the other hand, it tends to display poor selectivity. Reactive-ion etching (RIE) operates under conditions intermediate between sputter and plasma etching (between 10−3 and 10−1 Torr). Deep reactive-ion etching (DRIE) modifies the RIE technique to produce deep, narrow features.

Common etch processes used in microfabrication

Etchants for common microfabrication materials
Material to be etchedWet etchantsPlasma etchants
Aluminium (Al)80% phosphoric acid (H3PO4) + 5% acetic acid
+ 5% nitric acid (HNO3) + 10% water (H2O) at 35–45 °C [4]
Cl2, CCl4, SiCl4, BCl3 [5]
Indium tin oxide [ITO] (In2O3:SnO2) Hydrochloric acid (HCl) + nitric acid (HNO3) + water (H2O) (1:0.1:1) at 40 °C [6]
Chromium (Cr)

Gallium Arsenide (GaAs)

Gold (Au)
Molybdenum (Mo) CF4 [5]
Organic residues and photoresist Piranha etch: sulfuric acid (H2SO4) + hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) O2 (ashing)
Platinum (Pt)Aqua regia
Silicon (Si)
Silicon dioxide (SiO2)CF4, SF6, NF3 [5]
Silicon nitride (Si3N4)
  • 85% Phosphoric acid (H3PO4) at 180 °C [4] (Requires SiO2 etch mask)
CF4, SF6, NF3, [5] CHF3
Tantalum (Ta)CF4 [5]
Titanium (Ti)Hydrofluoric acid (HF) [4] BCl3 [8]
Titanium nitride (TiN)
  • Nitric acid (HNO3) + hydrofluoric acid (HF)
  • SC1
  • Buffered HF (bHF)
Tungsten (W)
  • Nitric acid (HNO3) + hydrofluoric acid (HF)
  • Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2)

See also

Related Research Articles

Anisotropy property of being directionally dependent, which implies different properties in different directions, as opposed to isotropy

Anisotropy, is the property of being directionally dependent, which implies different properties in different directions, as opposed to isotropy. It can be defined as a difference, when measured along different axes, in a material's physical or mechanical properties

Microelectromechanical systems technology of very small devices

Microelectromechanical systems is the technology of microscopic devices, particularly those with moving parts. It merges at the nano-scale into nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) and nanotechnology. MEMS are also referred to as micromachines in Japan, or micro systems technology (MST) in Europe.

Semiconductor device fabrication process used to create the integrated circuits that are present in everyday electrical and electronic devices

Semiconductor device fabrication is the process used to create the integrated circuits that are present in everyday electrical and electronic devices. It is a multiple-step sequence of photolithographic and chemical processing steps during which electronic circuits are gradually created on a wafer made of pure semiconducting material. Silicon is almost always used, but various compound semiconductors are used for specialized applications.

Isotropic etching is a method commonly used in semiconductors to remove material from a substrate via a chemical process using an etchant substance. The etchant may be in liquid-, gas- or plasma-phase, although liquid etchants such as buffered hydrofluoric acid (BHF) for silicon dioxide etching are more often used. Unlike anisotropic etching, isotropic etching does not etch in a single direction, but rather etches in multiple directions within the substrate. Any horizontal component of the etch direction may therefore result in undercutting of patterned areas, and significant changes to device characteristics. Isotropic etching may occur unavoidably, or it may be desirable for process reasons.

Reactive-ion etching

Reactive-ion etching (RIE) is an etching technology used in microfabrication. RIE is a type of dry etching which has different characteristics than wet etching. RIE uses chemically reactive plasma to remove material deposited on wafers. The plasma is generated under low pressure (vacuum) by an electromagnetic field. High-energy ions from the plasma attack the wafer surface and react with it.

Dry etching refers to the removal of material, typically a masked pattern of semiconductor material, by exposing the material to a bombardment of ions that dislodge portions of the material from the exposed surface. A common type of dry etching is reactive-ion etching. Unlike with many of the wet chemical etchants used in wet etching, the dry etching process typically etches directionally or anisotropically.

Surface micromachining builds microstructures by deposition and etching structural layers over a substrate. This is different from Bulk micromachining, in which a silicon substrate wafer is selectively etched to produce structures.

Bulk micromachining is a process used to produce micromachinery or microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

Ion beam

An ion beam is a type of charged particle beam consisting of ions. Ion beams have many uses in electronics manufacturing and other industries. A variety of ion beam sources exists, some derived from the mercury vapor thrusters developed by NASA in the 1960s. The most common ion beams are of singly-charged ions.

Deep reactive-ion etching (DRIE) is a highly anisotropic etch process used to create deep penetration, steep-sided holes and trenches in wafers/substrates, typically with high aspect ratios. It was developed for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), which require these features, but is also used to excavate trenches for high-density capacitors for DRAM and more recently for creating through silicon vias (TSVs) in advanced 3D wafer level packaging technology.

Plasma etching is a form of plasma processing used to fabricate integrated circuits. It involves a high-speed stream of glow discharge (plasma) of an appropriate gas mixture being shot at a sample. The plasma source, known as etch species, can be either charged (ions) or neutral. During the process, the plasma generates volatile etch products at room temperature from the chemical reactions between the elements of the material etched and the reactive species generated by the plasma. Eventually the atoms of the shot element embed themselves at or just below the surface of the target, thus modifying the physical properties of the target.

Lam Research company

Lam Research Corporation is an American corporation that engages in the design, manufacture, marketing, and service of semiconductor processing equipment used in the fabrication of integrated circuits. Its products are used primarily in front-end wafer processing, which involves the steps that create the active components of semiconductor devices and their wiring (interconnects). The company also builds equipment for back-end wafer-level packaging (WLP), and for related manufacturing markets such as for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

Advanced silicon etching (ASE) is a deep reactive-ion etching (DRIE) technique to rapidly etch deep and high aspect ratio structures in silicon. ASE was pioneered by Surface Technology Systems Plc. (STS) in 1994 in the UK. STS has continued to develop this process with even greater etch rates while maintaining side wall roughness and selectivity. STS developed the switched process originally invented by Dr. Larmer at Bosch, Stuttgart. ASE consists in combining the fast etch rates achieved in an isotropic Si etch (usually making use of an SF6 plasma) with a deposition or passivation process (usually utilising a C4F8 plasma condensation process) by alternating the two process steps. This approach achieves the fastest etch rates while maintaining the ability to etch anisotropically, typically vertically in Microelectromechanical Systems (microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)) applications.

The ASE HRM is an evolution of the previous generations of ICP design, now incorporating a decoupled plasma source (patent pending). This decoupled source generates very high density plasma which is allowed to diffuse into a separate process chamber. Through careful chamber design, the excess ions that are detrimental to process control are reduced, leaving a uniform distribution of fluorine free-radicals at a higher density than that available from the conventional ICP sources. The higher fluorine free-radical density facilitates increased etch rates, typically over three times the etch rates achieved with the original Bosch process. Also, as a result of the reduction in the effect of localised depletion of these species, improved uniformity for many applications can be achieved.

A plasma etcher, or etching tool, is a tool used in the production of semiconductor devices. A plasma etcher produces a plasma from a process gas, typically oxygen or a fluorine-bearing gas, using a high frequency electric field, typically 13.56 MHz. A silicon wafer is placed in the plasma etcher, and the air is evacuated from the process chamber using a system of vacuum pumps. Then a process gas is introduced at low pressure, and is excited into a plasma through dielectric breakdown.

Buffered oxide etch (BOE), also known as buffered HF or BHF, is a wet etchant used in microfabrication. Its primary use is in etching thin films of silicon dioxide (SiO2) or silicon nitride (Si3N4). It is a mixture of a buffering agent, such as ammonium fluoride (NH4F), and hydrofluoric acid (HF). Concentrated HF (typically 49% HF in water) etches silicon dioxide too quickly for good process control and also peels photoresist used in lithographic patterning. Buffered oxide etch is commonly used for more controllable etching.

The Wright Etch is a preferential etch for revealing defects in <100> and <111> oriented, p- and n-type silicon. It was developed by Margaret Wright Jenkins in 1976 while working in research and development at Motorola Inc. It was published in 1977. This etchant reveals clearly defined oxidation-induced stacking faults, dislocations, swirls and striations with minimum surface roughness or extraneous pitting. These defects are known causes of shorts and current leakage in finished semiconductor devices should they fall across isolated junctions. A relatively low etch rate at room temperature provides etch control. The long shelf life of this etchant allows the solution to be stored in large quantities. The present report summarizes the highlights of the Wright etch. For a detailed discussion of observation and findings, please consult the original article.

Chemistry of photolithography

Photolithography is a process in removing select portions of thin films used in microfabrication. Microfabrication is the production of parts on the micro- and nano- scale, typically on the surface of silicon wafers for the production of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Photolithography makes this process possible through the combined use of hexamethyldisilazane (HMDS), photoresist, a spin or spray coater, photomask, an exposure system and other various chemicals. By carefully manipulating these factors it is possible to create nearly any geometry microstructure on the surface of a silicon wafer. The chemical interaction between all the different components and the surface of the silicon wafer makes photolithography an interesting chemistry problem. Current science has been able to create features on the surface of silicon wafers between 1 and 100 µm.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), better known by its trade name Teflon, has many desirable properties which make it an attractive material for numerous industries. It has good chemical resistance, a low dielectric constant, low dielectric loss, and a low coefficient of friction, making it ideal for reactor linings, circuit boards, and kitchen utensils, to name a few applications. However, its nonstick properties make it challenging to bond to other materials or to itself.


Inline references

  1. X. Mu, et al. Laminar Flow used as "Liquid Etching Mask" in Wet Chemical Etching to Generate Glass Microstructures with an Improved Aspect Ratio. Lab on a Chip, 2009, 9: 1994-1996.
  2. Finne, R.M.; Klein, D.L. (1967). "A Water-Amine-Complexing Agent System for Etching Silicon". Journal of the Electrochemical Society. 114: 965–70. doi:10.1149/1.2426793.
  3. Shikida, M.; Sato, K.; Tokoro, K.; Uchikawa, D. (2000). "Surface morphology of anisotropically etched single-crystal silicon". Journal of Micromechanical Microengineering. 10: 522. doi:10.1088/0960-1317/10/4/306.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Wolf, S.; R.N. Tauber (1986). Silicon Processing for the VLSI Era: Volume 1 - Process Technology. Lattice Press. pp. 531–534. ISBN   0-9616721-3-7.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Wolf, S.; R.N. Tauber (1986). Silicon Processing for the VLSI Era: Volume 1 - Process Technology. Lattice Press. p. 546. ISBN   0-9616721-3-7.
  6. Bahadur, Birendra (1990). Liquid Crystals: Applications and Uses vol.1. World Scientific. p. 183. ISBN   981-02-2975-5.
  7. 1 2 Walker, Perrin; William H. Tarn (1991). CRC Handbook of Metal Etchants. pp. 287–291. ISBN   0-8493-3623-6.
  8. Kohler, Michael (1999). Etching in Microsystem Technology. John Wiley & Son Ltd. p. 329. ISBN   3-527-29561-5.