Nanocrystalline copper films are never flat

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Science  28 Jul 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6349, pp. 397-400
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan4797

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Flat-out failure of copper films

As integrated circuits shrink in size, so does their nanocrystalline metal wiring. Defects at the interfaces between crystallites (grain boundaries) can degrade wires' electrical and thermal conductivity, as well as their longevity. Using scanning tunneling microscopy, Zhang et al. showed that the surfaces of nanocrystalline copper films are not flat but rather have ridges and valleys created by the grains rotating out of plane, which then introduces grain boundary defects. Such defects might be avoided if films of different orientations could be grown.

Science, this issue p. 397


We used scanning tunneling microscopy to study low-angle grain boundaries at the surface of nearly planar copper nanocrystalline (111) films. The presence of grain boundaries and their emergence at the film surface create valleys composed of dissociated edge dislocations and ridges where partial dislocations have recombined. Geometric analysis and simulations indicated that valleys and ridges were created by an out-of-plane grain rotation driven by reduction of grain boundary energy. These results suggest that in general, it is impossible to form flat two-dimensional nanocrystalline films of copper and other metals exhibiting small stacking fault energies and/or large elastic anisotropy, which induce a large anisotropy in the dislocation-line energy.

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