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Crystal growth process yields more precise semiconductors

Sindo  Kou

Sindo Kou (large image)

Materials Science and Engineering graduate student Jia-Jie

Materials Science and Engineering Professor Sindo Kou and graduate student Jia-Jie He (pictured) developed a simple process that enables researchers to grow better quality semiconductor crystals. To monitor a crystal's growth, He might spend 48 continuous hours in the lab. (large image)

A new method of producing semiconducting crystals may mean better performance for cellular telephones, CD players, computers, X-ray machines and other devices. Sliced into almost paper-thin discs called wafers, semiconductors hold the circuitry that receives, transmits and processes information.

Traditionally, scientists "grow" quantities of single-crystalline semiconducting materials by immersing the tip of a pencil-shaped starter crystal, or "seed," in a melt of the same composition, then slowly withdrawing and rotating the seed to form a thick rod shape. To make the crystal develop certain desired properties, they add special impurities to the melt before crystal growth.

However, as the crystal grows, it either rejects those impurities into the melt or takes them in from it. As a result, the melt composition can change during growth — and since the crystal grows from the melt, the crystal composition can also continue to change. When the process is finished, the resulting crystal's composition and properties also can vary along its length, so many parts built upon wafers from one crystal can be inconsistent in performance.

Materials Science and Engineering Professor Sindo Kou and graduate student Jia-Jie He have devised a method to ensure the melt composition stays constant. First, they lengthened the crucible in which the materials melt. Then they added a low-temperature heater around the crucible's lower half and moved the existing high-temperature heater to the upper half. The bottom of the crucible holds a solid material identical in composition to the desired crystal; the upper part holds the melt. As the crystal grows and the melt level decreases, an existing mechanism pushes the crucible upward so that the solid material gradually enters the high-temperature heat zone, melts and keeps the melt composition constant. Scientists also can apply this method to crystals that are a mixture (an alloy) of two different semiconductors and grow them with a uniform composition.

With a few modifications, users can adapt this technology easily to their existing equipment. Kou and He are patenting their discovery through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.