Thin Film Deposition Technologies: Introduction to Thin Films and Processes

Thin films are deposited by a wide variety of processes. However, we begin this blog first with the advantages of using thin films and deposition processes applications. Thin film is the general term used for coatings that are used to modify and increase the functionality of a bulk surface or substrate. Typical thicknesses range from 50 nm to 10 μm. They are used to protect surfaces from wear, improve lubricity, improve corrosion and chemical resistance, modify optical and electrical properties and provide a barrier to gas penetration. In many cases thin films do not affect the bulk properties of the substrate material. They can, however, totally change the optical, electrical transport, and thermal properties of a surface or substrate, in addition to providing an enhanced degree of surface protection. Thin film deposition technology and the science have progressed rapidly in the direction of engineered thin film coatings and surface engineering [1]. Plasmas are used more extensively. Accordingly, advanced thin film deposition processes have been developed and new technologies have been adapted to conventional deposition processes. The market and applications for thin film coatings have also increased astronomically, particularly in the biomedical, display and energy fields.

Thin films have distinct advantages over bulk materials. Because most processes used to deposit thin films are nonequilibrium in nature, the composition of thin films is not constrained by metallurgical phase diagrams. Crystalline phase composition can also be varied to certain extent by deposition conditions and plasma enhancement. Virtually every property of the thin film depends on and can be modified by the deposition process and not all processes produce materials with the same properties. Microstructure, surface morphology, tribological, electrical, and optical properties of the thin film are all controlled by the deposition process. A single material can be used in several different applications and technologies, and the optimum properties for each application may depend on the deposition process used. Since not all deposit technologies yield the same properties or microstructures, the deposition process must be chosen to fit the required properties and application. For example, diamond-like carbon (DLC) films are used to reduce the coefficient of friction of a surface and improve wear resistance, but they are also used in infrared optical and electronic devices. Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is probably the most important and widely used thin film optical material and is also used in photocatalytic devices and self-cleaning windows, and may have important applications in hydrogen production. Zinc oxide (ZnO) has an excellent piezoelectric properties but is also used as a transparent conductive coating and spintronics applications. Silicon nitride (Si3N4) is a widely used hard optical material but also has excellent piezoelectric response. Aluminum oxide (Al2O3) is a widely used optical material and is also used in gas barriers and tribology applications. The list goes on…..

Thin films thus offer enormous potential due to the following:

  • Creation of entirely new and revolutionary products
  • Solution of previously unsolved engineering problems
  • Improved functionality of existing products; engineering, medical and decorative
  • Production of nano-structured coatings and nanocomposites
  • Conservation of scarce materials
  • Ecological considerations – reduction of effluent output and power consumption

Engineered materials are the future of thin film technology. Engineered structures such as superlattices, nanolaminates, nanotubes, nanocomposites, smart materials, photonic bandgap materials, molecularly doped polymeres and structured materials all have the capacity to expand and increase the functionality of thin films and coatings used in a variety of applications and provide new applications. New advanced deposition processes and hybrid processes are being used and developed to deposit advanced thin film materials and structures not possible with conventional techniques a decade ago. For example, until recently it was important to deposit fully dense films for all applications, but now films with engineered porosity are finding a wide range of new applications. Hybrid processes, combining unbalanced magnetron sputtering and filtered cathodic arc deposition for example, are achieving thin film materials with record hardness.

Organic materials are also playing a much more important role in many types of coating structures and applications, including organic electronics and organic light emitting devices (OLED). These materials have several advantages compared to inorganic materials, including low cost, high deposition rates, large area coverage, and unique physical and optical properties. It is also possible to molecularly dope and form nanocomposites with organic materials. Hybrid organic/inorganic deposition processes increase their versatility, and applications that combine organic and inorganic films are increasing.

In addition to traditional metalizing and glass coating, large area deposition, decorative coating and vacuum web coating have become important industrial processes. Vacuum web coating processes employ a number of deposition technologies and hybrid processes, most recently vacuum polymer deposition (VPD) and have new exciting applications in thin film photovoltaics, flexible displays, large area detectors, electrochromic windows, and energy efficiency.

Thus we see that each thin film deposition process can be used for a range of applications and that some are more conducive than others with respect to certain applications and materials. The following processes with be reviewed:

  • Thermal and electron beam deposition
  • Magnetron sputtering and its cousins
  • Ion assisted deposition
  • Pulsed laser deposition
  • Chemical vapor deposition and its cousins
  • Atomic layer deposition
  • Ion plating
  • Cathodic arc deposition
  • Vacuum polymer deposition
  • Vacuum web coating

This series of Blogs will describe deposition processes with respect to the following criteria:

  • Adatom energetics varies significantly with deposition process and must be taken into account. Some processes require additional components to increase energy.
  • Substrate temperature is critical.
  • Thickness uniformity of the film on the substrate
  • Microstructure
  • Materials usage
  • Deposition rate.
  • Process scale up
  • Materials, Some processes are work better with certain substrate materials that others



  1. Peter M Martin, Introduction to Surface Engineering and Functionally Engineered Materials, Wiley/Scrivener (2011).