Paul van Gerven
9 July

The markers used as ‘beacons’ to precisely position wafers during semiconductor manufacturing may become hard to find after several chip layers have been deposited on them. Researchers at ARCNL may have found a way to spot them: using acoustic waves.

Using very high-frequency sound waves, researchers at ARCNL have found a way to detect nanostructures buried under many layers of opaque material. Their findings may be useful to spot grating lines used for wafer alignment during semiconductor manufacturing. As these indispensable markers get buried deeper and deeper under layers of materials during the manufacturing process, they become harder and harder to spot with the technique that’s normally used: light.

Fortunately, many materials that are opaque to light do pass on sound waves. So similar to performing an ultrasound, the ARCNL researchers sent sound waves into layers of materials you might find on a wafer, stacked on top of a grating. Actually, they shot short laser pulses at it, knowing this would induce high-frequency sound waves in the opaque material. The frequency of the waves is much higher than those used in medical echoes – the higher the frequency, the smaller the features that can be discerned. Obviously, for finding nanostructures, very high-frequency waves are necessary.

The big question was whether the waves would reach the grating in the first place. “I was a bit skeptical in the beginning because the sound waves have to travel through so many layers of dielectric material before they reach the grating buried inside. If they reflect at all these interfaces, we would have ended up with a complete mess of sound waves. But it turned out that the stack of thin dielectric layers acts as one thick layer because the individual layers are thinner than the wavelength of the sound wave. So the sound waves travel straight to the buried grating lines that we want to see,” says ARCNL group leader Paul Planken.

A femtosecond pump laser shot at the opaque material (1) causes a high-frequency acoustic wave to travel through the layers (2) until it reaches the buried grating lines. The acoustic waves are reflected at the grating and travel back (3) as a grating-shaped wave. When this wave hits the surface (4), the grating-shaped deformation can be detected from the diffraction signal of a femtosecond probe laser. Credit: ARCNL


Having traveled through the opaque material, the sound reflects at the grating. Since the grating is not a flat surface but has periodic valleys and peaks, the sound from the valleys reaches the surface slightly later than the sound from the peaks. The sound wave causes a very small displacement of the atoms when it reaches the surface, causing a copy of the grating to appear there. This pattern can be detected using a second laser pulse.

From Idea to Industry

Now that they’ve shown that it’s possible to detect nanostructures buried under opaque material, the researchers are going to further investigate their method. Planken: “Our results not only reveal interesting features in photo-acoustics that haven’t been investigated before, but also offer a promising solution for practical issues in nanolithography. For industrial applications, we should optimize the system to get signals that are stronger, faster and more robust. But we also want to increase our understanding of all the effects that we see in the signal, and find the limits of our method, for example by trying to discern a grating with lines that are very close to each other.”