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Materials Research

Print version ISSN 1516-1439On-line version ISSN 1980-5373

Mat. Res. vol.12 no.1 São Carlos Jan./Mar. 2009 



Grain size effect on the electrical response of SnO2 thin and thick film gas sensors



Raluca SavuI, *; Miguel Adolfo PonceII; Ednan JoanniI; Paulo Roberto BuenoI; Miriam CastroII; Mario CilenseI; José Arana VarelaI; Elson LongoI

ILaboratório Interdisciplinar de Eletroquímica e Cerâmica - LIEC, Instituto de Química - UNESP, Rua Francisco Degni, s/n, 14800-900 Araraquara - SP, Brazil
IICatalizadores y Superficies, INTEMA-Facultad de Ingeniería, Av. J.B. Justo, 4302 Mar del Plata, Argentina




Porous nano and micro crystalline tin oxide films were deposited by RF Magnetron Sputtering and doctor blade techniques, respectively. Electrical resistance and impedance spectroscopy measurements, as a function of temperature and atmosphere, were performed in order to determine the influence of the microstructure and working conditions over the electrical response of the sensors. The conductivity of all samples increases with the temperature and decreases in oxygen, as expected for an n-type semiconducting material. The impedance plots indicated the existence of two time constants related to the grains and the grain boundaries. The Nyquist diagrams at low frequencies revealed the changes that took place in the grain boundary region, with the contribution of the grains being indicated by the formation of a second semicircle at high frequencies. The better sensing performance of the doctor bladed samples can be explained by their lower initial resistance values, bigger grain sizes and higher porosity.

Keywords: semiconductors, impedance spectroscopy, electrical properties



1. Introduction

Semiconducting oxide sensors have been intensively studied due to their high sensitivity to a large number of gases1-14. The most studied among those oxides is pure or doped tin oxide (SnO2) obtained in different forms, from powders and bulk ceramics2-5, to thick and thin films4-14. Tin oxide is a wide band gap (3.6 eV) n-type semiconductor, having its conductivity depending upon oxygen vacancies that act as donors10.

Bulk sensors, which represent important analytical devices for air monitoring in domestic and industrial environments, exhibit some shortcomings that can be circumvented by modern film technologies. Gas sensors, in thin or thick film forms, are more promising detectors due to their potentially low cost, ruggedness and low electric power consumption1. Another important advantage in the use of micro and nanostructured films is the high surface to volume ratio, offering faster responses and higher sensibilities. Regardless of the method used for fabrication, the microstructural characteristics of the material are responsible for the sensing performance of the devices. It is well known that the electrical resistance of metal oxide semiconductors can be affected by temperature as well as by the ambient gases. For gas sensing applications the desirable characteristics are high porosity, small grain size and either low or high conductivity (for reducing or oxidizing gases, respectively)1-17.

Sputtering is a preferred technique among the physical vapor deposition (PVD) methods due to the wide choice of materials to work with, better step coverage, the possibility to deposit over large areas and better adhesion between the films and the substrate1,10-13,15.

The sensing characteristics of film based devices (sensitivity, response and recovery time) are greatly affected by film structure, morphology and thickness. These parameters are to be controlled by choosing the preparation method, which has to include, among other characteristics, good reproducibility and low cost. The doctor-blade technique has several advantages for producing thick layers suitable for gas sensing applications, such as easy precursor preparation, homogeneous composition, easy control of film thickness and very low cost18-21.

Lately, impedance spectroscopy has increasingly been applied for studying a variety of electronic devices, being a unique tool for a detailed characterization of the interaction of gas sensors with the surrounding environment. The frequency response measurements can bring information not only about the changes in the electrical resistance within the device, but also about effects arising from different sources like grains and bulk boundaries, intergranular contacts and grain/electrode contacts2,3,8,9,13,16,17.

In this paper, a comparative study of porous SnO2 films deposited by RF sputtering and doctor blade techniques is reported. The influence of the deposition parameters over the grain size and morphology of the films, as well as the effect of these conditions on the electrical behavior of the samples are discussed.


2. Experimental Procedure

Alumina substrates with sputtered interdigitated gold electrodes were used for depositing tin oxide films by RF Magnetron Sputtering and doctor blade techniques (geometry shown in Figure 1). For the sputtered films, the high vacuum chamber was evacuated until at least 10-2 Pa before each deposition in order to avoid contamination by residual gases. A 2" SnO2 commercial target (SCI Engineered Materials - 99,7% purity) was pre-sputtered for 10 minutes before each deposition. The films were deposited at room temperature in 13.3 Pa argon atmosphere with 9.5 sccm (standard cubic centimeters per minute- measured with a MKS 247 mass flow meter) gas flow. The process was carried out for 120 minutes with 100W RF power, giving rise to films approximately 500 nm thick (value measured in real time by an Inficon XTC/2 deposition controller coupled to an oscillating quartz crystal mass sensor). After the deposition, the samples were heat-treated in air at 500 °C for 30 minutes. For the doctor blade technique, commercial high-purity SnO2 powder (Probus, medium particle size 0.4 µm) was ground until a medium particle size of 0.1 µm. In order to obtain a larger amount of oxygen vacancies, a calcination process was carried out at 1300 °C for 2 hours in N2 atmosphere. The powders were quenched in liquid nitrogen and ground again until a medium particle size of 500 nm was obtained. In order to determine the particle size distributions of the powders the X ray sedimentation technique was employed using a Micromeritics Sedigraph particle size analyzer. Pastes made up of these powders and an organic binder (glycerol), were prepared, having the solid/organic binder ratio of 1/2. Using the doctor blade technique21,22, thick film sensing devices were made by spreading the obtained paste onto insulating alumina substrate with gold sputtered interdigitated electrodes (Figure 1). Finally, in order to improve the adhesion to the substrate and to promote partial sintering, the samples were thermally treated in an electrical oven for 2 hours at 500 °C, in air at atmospheric pressure. The mean thickness of the films was ~500 µm, as measured using a Mitutoyo BH506 profilometer.



The degree of cristallinity, the grain sizes, the phases present in the films and their orientation were assessed by X ray diffraction (XRD - Rigaku Rint 2000) using the Kα line of Cu in a θ-2θ configuration. Field-Emission Scanning Electron Microscopy (FE-SEM, Zeiss® Supra 35), with an operating voltage of 5 kV, was used for observing the surface morphology, the size and shape of the grains, the porosity of the films and for measuring film thicknesses on cross-section images. Due to the difficulty of cutting the alumina substrates for film thickness measurements, silicon substrates were used as control samples. During the sputtering deposition, they were placed close to the alumina substrates, in a way that the same deposition conditions were applied to both sets of substrates. For the thickness evaluation, the films deposited on silicon were transversally cut and attached to a metallic support using carbon tape. Due to the semiconducting nature of the samples, no metallic coating was needed. For surface imaging, all the samples were just attached to the metallic stubs using carbon tape. The sensors were tested in a custom made chamber with independent control of temperature, pressure, gas composition and flow rate. The impedance and electrical resistance measurements were performed in an AC mode, being carried out using an impedance analyzer (Agilent 4294A) with a frequency sweep from 40 Hz to 110 MHz and an amplitude of 0.5 V. The real part of the impedance at 40 Hz frequency was considered as the resistance value of the samples during testing. The sensors were tested at atmospheric pressure, in air, 100 sccm O2 and 100 sccm N2 (with an Omel rotameter calibrated for N2 at 21 °C, 760 mmHg) using different temperatures in the range from 50 to 350 °C. For the electrical resistance measurements, the samples were maintained in nitrogen atmosphere (100 sccm N2) until the temperature was stabilized; at this point the nitrogen flow was stopped, 100 sccm O2 was injected in the chamber and the measurements were started. After half an hour in oxidizing atmosphere, the film was exposed again to nitrogen and the change in the electrical resistance was registered. This cycle, having the total duration of one hour, was repeated for all samples.


3. Results and Discussion

Figure 2 shows typical XRD patterns for all the samples. With the exception of peaks from the Al2O3 substrate, all the peaks can be indexed to the tetragonal rutile structure of tin oxide (JCPDS card 41-1445). The grain sizes of the as-deposited and heat-treated sputtered samples (Figures 2a and 2b) are very small, as indicated by the broad peaks in the diffractogram. The film heat-treated in air at 500 °C for 30 minutes (Figure 2b) exhibits a higher degree of cristallinity with partial (101) preferential orientation. The peaks from the doctor bladed films (Figure 2c) show no preferential orientation, being narrow and intense (comparable with typical results for bulk samples) due to the large grains sizes.



Figure 3 presents high-resolution FE-SEM images of films deposited by sputtering (Figure 3a) and doctor blade (Figure 3b), respectively. The as-deposited sputtered tin oxide thin films (Figure 3a) show good uniformity with very small grains; the grain size is approximately 30 nm, as can be observed in the inset. The apparent aggregates present in the SEM image are actually due to the conformal tin oxide films closely following the surface topography of the unpolished alumina substrates. This is a typical result for sputter - coated samples. The cross section images (acquired from the sample deposited onto silicon substrates) revealed a film thickness of approximately 500 nm. After the heat treatment, the mean grain size increases to approximately 50 nm with small cracks appearing on the film surface as a consequence of the onset of sintering. For the doctor-bladed samples, one can observe in Figure 3b that the grain sizes are less uniform and at least ten times larger than the sputtered ones. The film presents bigger pores, being approximately 100 µm thick after the heat treatment.



Figure 4 shows the electrical resistance of the sensors with time, after changing the surrounding atmosphere from nitrogen to oxygen and back to nitrogen. The measurements were conducted at 150 and 200 °C for both doctor bladed and sputtered samples. The electrical resistance increases with the injection of oxygen, as expected for an n-type semiconductor. At 150 °C working temperature, the resistance of the doctor bladed films increases by more than one order of magnitude, whereas for the sputtered sample the effect is smaller. The response of the sensors is relatively fast, with the resistance stabilizing after approximately 10 minutes for doctor bladed and 15 minutes for sputtered samples. The best response, both in terms of sensibility and response time, was obtained for the doctor bladed film, which also exhibits the steadiest behavior at 200 °C. When the atmosphere is changed back to nitrogen, the resistance drops and the final values registered are similar to the initial values.



The improved performance of the doctor bladed samples when compared to the sputtered ones can be explained by their lower initial resistance values (better sensitivity), bigger grain sizes and higher porosity (faster response times). The sensitivity and the response times are better for all samples at the 200 °C working temperature (Figure 4) due to the higher rate of gas adsorption/desorption at elevated temperatures.

Resistance vs. time curves can be understood considering the existence of potential barriers between grains that are responsible for the change in the electrical response of the material. The interaction of oxygen with grain surfaces produces the transfer of electrons from the bulk to the surface. From this process, the barrier height and the depletion width become larger and, as a consequence, the sample resistance increases21. The impedance of polycrystalline samples is described by a complex behavior, due to the contribution of different system components like grain boundaries, grains, pores and metallic contacts. The impedance responses in air, for the 50 and 350 °C temperatures selected for data analysis are presented in Figure 5. The disordered deep bulk trap location in SnO2 grains could be the phenomenon that modifies the Debye-like response. Usually the electrical behavior of tin oxide thick films is modeled with an (RC) parallel equivalent circuit. However, in our previous works23,24 regarding the impedance frequency response technique, experiments have shown that a more sophisticated model should be considered. Distinctively, expected deep traps, with a distribution of activation energies, imply a distributed impedance element (Davidson-Cole model). The electrode effects could also be incorporated, but primarily a single semicircle could be usually attributed to a single relaxation process, indicating that at the measured-frequency range and at 50 °C (Figure 5a) only the semicircle corresponding to the grain boundary contribution is observed8.



As one can notice for the 350 °C working temperature (Figure 5b), in the high frequency region the semicircles exhibit a small deformation, indicating the presence of a second time constant due to the contribution from the grains. The electrical resistance at low frequencies, measured at 350 °C, is at least two orders of magnitude smaller than the one measured at 50 °C. This can be assigned to the temperature influence on the conductivity of n-type semiconductors, which also improves the oxygen diffusion across the film.

Further measurements were performed in order to study the response of devices with dissimilar grain sizes upon exposure to different gases. Figure 6 show the Nyquist plots of the sputtered and doctor bladed films measured in oxygen and nitrogen at 150 and 200 °C. As can be noticed, the surrounding atmosphere has a large influence in the electrical behavior of the sensors. The impedance plots for both nanocrystalline (Figure 6a) and microcrystalline (Figure 6b) samples are formed by two arcs showing, once again, the existence of a second time constant. The formation of the second semicircle at high frequencies points out the contribution of the bulk grains to the electrical behavior of the films. In our case, the influence of electrodes can be neglected in the impedance measurements.

The increasing concern in the detection of toxic and flammable gases calls for the development of highly sensitive devices. The interest has long been more focused in the variation of Rgb measured at low Zreal frequencies than in the deep trap contributions. The pattern of the Nyquist diagrams at low frequencies reveals the changes that take place in the grain boundary region of the sensors. The deformation of the plot is more evident for the doctor bladed film at the lowest temperature of 150 °C used for impedance analyses in gas atmosphere. This behavior is due to the chemical reaction at the surface and in the grain boundary region that takes place when oxidizing agents are present in the surrounding atmosphere. The presence of nitrogen helps removing the oxygen adsorbed at the surface of the grains, reducing the sample resistivity. Oxidizing agents lead to a depletion of charge carriers within the surface layer and grain boundaries, whereas reducing agents, due to desorption of oxygen, increase the charge carrier concentration4. This chemical reaction also changes the disordered deep bulk trap location in SnO2 grains and this phenomenon could be also modifying the Debye-like response.


4. Conclusions

The influence of the deposition techniques over the microstructure and electrical properties of tin oxide thin and thick films were studied in this work. X ray diffraction patterns revealed that, for the two depositions methods, the films are composed of rutile tin oxide. FE-SEM images showed that the sputtered samples had uniform equiaxial grains having a mean particle size of approximately 30 nm, whereas the doctor bladed films exhibited less uniform grains, at least ten times larger than the sputtered ones. Atmospheres have a strong influence over the grains and grain boundaries, dictating the electrical behavior of the devices. The electrical resistance of the samples made by both methods was strongly influenced by the atmosphere, even at the relatively low working temperature of 150 °C. The good sensing performance of the doctor bladed samples can be explained by their lower initial resistance values, bigger grain sizes and higher porosity. The improved sensitivity and response times at the 200 °C working temperature are due to the higher rate of gas adsorption/desorption. The impedance plots as a function of temperature and gas indicated the existence of two time constants related to the grains and the grain boundaries. The contribution of the grains to the electrical behavior of the films led to the formation of a second semicircle at high frequencies and the pattern of the Nyquist diagrams at low frequencies revealed the changes that took place in the grain boundary region. Work is now in progress for the construction of a theoretical model that could help in understanding and quantifying these contributions.



The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support from the Brazilian research funding agencies FAPESP and CNPq.



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Received: September 18, 2008
Revised: January 1, 2009



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