Little known MBE facts: High Purity Material

Faebian Bastiman

I was asked recently what purity of material a user should use in their MBE system. Here the grower was referring to the number of “N’s”. The N of the material is a reference to its purity and is actually the number of nines: Material that is 99% pure and 1% impure is termed 2N. 99.5% is termed 2N5, the “2N5” tells you it is at least half way to being 3N. Of course this does not tell you what the impurities are specifically, however you can assume they are made up of all the things you do not want in your III-V thin film layers (Zn, Cu, Fe, Sn, Hg, Ca, Te, etc) and a few III-V elements that you do not need to worry too much about (you are, after all, growing III-Vs anyway).The purity of material will ultimately determine the quality of your thin films, since any impurities in your cell material will likely incorporate as unintentional dopants in your layers.

If you are growing metals (for example MnAs) you are not too worried about unintentional doping and you may use a maximum of 5N5 material (99.9995%). If you are growing electronic or opto-electronic grade semiconductors (for example GaAs) you will want higher purity. Ultimately the highest you can get commercially is 9N (99.9999999%), however I would not recommend you all rush to the shops and buy such expensive material for general research. 9N is exponentially more expensive than 8N, 8N is exponentially more expensive than 7N. Similarly the ultimate background doping you can achieve with 9N is an order of magnitude lower than with 8N, and the same applies when comparing 8N to 7N. Before I suggest the appropriate material quality, let’s do a thought exercise with GaAs…

GaAs has a lattice constant of 0.565338 nm, and therefore an atomic density of 4.42 x 1022 cm-3. When opto-electronics people (specifically detector people) talk about background doping requirements they say that 1015 cm-3 is already good.  This means they would like the unintentional doping level to be 5×107 times lower than the atomic density. In this case 7N5 would be the appropriate choice for you group III and V material. One could argue that you should use 7N5 for all materials and that replacing a specific material with 8N is a waste of money. However this “all or nothing” philosophy is not really justified since unintentional doping is accumulative, and hence replacing your group IIIs with 8N might reduce your background doping from high 1015 to low 1015. Thus 7N5 to 8N is a good choice for opto-electronic research, and 9N is only for exceptional high mobility cases or world record attempts. Moreover, if you are simply experimenting with a new opto-electronic alloy and not so interested in device quality at this stage 6N5 is acceptable. Note that the source material is only one factor in your ultimate achievable material quality, for more information read my Optimum Quality post.

Finally consider the dopant material. When we dope a semiconductor we typically dope in the 1016 to 1019 cm-3 range depending on the application. At 1019 cm-3 the dopant is around 104 times lower in atomic density than the III or V species. This means the doping fluxes are around 104 times lower that the group III and V fluxes and hence any impurities introduced into your system from the dopant source will also be 104 times lower. Add to this that when you dope the alloy you are “trying” to add impurities and you can say that 6N is already a very good grade for dopant material and 5N may even be suitable.

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