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What Are the Process Gases That Are Used in Plasma Cleaning?



Plasma cleaning is a highly effective method for removing contamination from the surface of objects, utilizing plasma, the fourth state of matter. Plasma, which is an ionized gas consisting of free electrons and positive ions, is generated within a vacuum chamber by introducing one or more process gases and ionizing them using a current source. Plasma cleaning offers numerous advantages, including environmental safety, residue-free surfaces, and the ability to reach inaccessible areas.


Different gases, such as oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, argon, and chlorine, can be used in the plasma cleaning process, each offering unique properties and benefits. Here, we will break down how each acts with a specific and unique purpose in the plasma cleaning process.


What Is Plasma Cleaning?

Plasma cleaning is a process that utilizes plasma, the fourth state of matter, to effectively remove contamination from the surface of an object. Plasma is an ionized gas that contains free electrons and positive ions. In plasma cleaning, a vacuum chamber is used to create a low-pressure environment, and one or more process gases are introduced into the chamber. The process gases, such as oxygen, hydrogen, or argon, are then ionized using a current source, such as DC, MW, or RF.


Once the plasma is generated, it becomes highly reactive and interacts with the surface of the object, as well as the contaminants present on it. The plasma breaks down the chemical bonds of the contaminants, converting them into smaller organic molecules that can be vaporized at the operating vacuum pressure. These molecules are then removed from the object's surface by the gas flow through the vacuum pump exhaust. The result is a clean surface without any residue, chemicals, or toxicity.


Different Gases Used in Plasma Cleaning and Etching

Oxygen plasma facilitates oxidation reactions to break down organic contaminants, nitrogen plasma works similarly to oxygen plasma but doesn’t promote oxidation, hydrogen plasma operates through reduction reactions and is effective for oxide removal, argon plasma exchanges energy through collisions for contaminant breakdown, and chlorine plasma utilizes the reactive nature of chlorine to decompose contaminants.


Let's take a look at these gases in more detail:


Oxygen (O2)

When oxygen gas is introduced into the vacuum chamber and ionized using a current source, it forms oxygen plasma. The highly reactive plasma interacts with the contaminants on the object's surface. The oxidative nature of the oxygen plasma facilitates chemical reactions similar to those involved in combustion. This results in the organic contaminants being broken down into smaller molecules.


The by-products of the chemical reactions in the plasma cleaning process are volatile and can be vaporized at the operating vacuum pressure. These molecules then leave the surface of the object and are removed by the gas flow through the vacuum pump exhaust. The end result is a clean surface free from unwanted organic contaminants.


However, it's important to note that oxygen plasma should not be used on materials that are sensitive to oxidation. For example, metals like copper or silver may undergo oxidation during the plasma cleaning process, which can alter their properties or appearance. In such cases, alternative plasma cleaning processes or gases may be more suitable.


Oxygen plasma cleaning is particularly useful in applications where effective removal of organic contaminants is desired, such as in the semiconductor industry or in cleaning surfaces for better adhesion.


Nitrogen (N2)

When nitrogen gas is introduced into the vacuum chamber and ionized using a current source, it forms nitrogen plasma. Nitrogen plasma cleaning operates differently from oxygen as it doesn’t promote oxidation as much. Nitrogen plasma will chemically and physically react with the organic contamination through the species formed in the plasma such as Natom, N2*, and N2+.


These species react with the organic contamination on the object's surface, breaking it down into smaller molecules. Similar to other plasma cleaning processes, these smaller molecules vaporize and are removed by the gas flow.


Nitrogen plasma cleaning is often chosen for its unique properties and benefits. It is particularly effective for removing organic contaminants that are resistant to oxidation or reduction processes. It can also be used on materials that are sensitive to oxidation, as nitrogen plasma does not promote oxidation reactions like oxygen plasma does. Therefore, it is suitable for cleaning surfaces made of materials like copper or silver that should not have an oxidation layer after the cleaning process.


Hydrogen (H2)

Hydrogen plasma cleaning is known for its reductive properties, meaning it creates a reducing environment that can effectively remove oxides and generic organic contamination from surfaces.


When hydrogen gas is introduced into the vacuum chamber and ionized using a current source, it forms a hydrogen plasma. Hydrogen plasma cleaning operates through a different mechanism compared to oxygen plasma cleaning. Instead of promoting oxidation reactions, hydrogen plasma works by facilitating reduction reactions.


Hydrogen plasma is capable of breaking down organic contaminants on the surface of objects. The chemistry involved in hydrogen plasma cleaning is different from oxygen plasma, but the overall mechanisms are similar. The plasma interacts with the contaminants, breaking them down into smaller molecules that can vaporize at the operating vacuum pressure.


One significant application of hydrogen plasma cleaning is oxide removal. Oxidation reactions can lead to the formation of surface oxides on metals. Hydrogen plasma, with its reductive properties, can reverse these oxidation reactions and remove surface oxides, bringing the metal back to its pure form. This allows for the surface to be exposed directly to the environment without an oxide layer.


Hydrogen plasma cleaning is commonly used in industries such as electronics manufacturing, semiconductor fabrication, and precision cleaning.


Argon (Ar)

Argon plasma cleaning operates differently from oxygen or hydrogen plasma cleaning, as it does not chemically react with organic contaminants. Instead, argon plasma exchanges energy through inelastic collisions, leading to the breakdown of contaminants.


When argon gas is introduced into the vacuum chamber and ionized using a current source, it forms argon plasma. Argon, being a heavy element compared to carbon, oxygen, or nitrogen, allows for the acceleration of positive argon ions present in the plasma. These ions can be directed toward the organic contamination on the surface of the object, effectively breaking it down into smaller molecules.


The smaller organic molecules resulting from the interaction with the argon plasma vaporize at the operating vacuum pressure. They are then removed from the object's surface by the gas flow through the vacuum pump exhaust.


Argon plasma cleaning is distinct in its ability to provide excellent results in terms of adhesion. It is commonly used in industries such as the semiconductor and automotive sectors, where surface cleanliness and adhesion are critical.


One advantage of argon plasma cleaning is its non-reactive nature. It does not chemically alter the surface or introduce oxidation or reduction reactions.


Chlorine (Cl2)

Chlorine plasma cleaning operates by utilizing the highly reactive nature of chlorine to break down and remove contaminants from surfaces.


Chlorine plasma is effective in removing organic contaminants, such as oils and residues, from the surface of objects. The reactive species in the plasma, such as chlorine radicals and ions, chemically react with the contaminants, leading to their decomposition. The by-products of these reactions are volatile and can be easily removed through the gas flow in the vacuum system.


Chlorine plasma cleaning is commonly used in applications where high cleanliness standards are required, such as in the fabrication of semiconductor devices. It can help remove stubborn organic residues that may be challenging to eliminate using other cleaning methods.


Chlorine plasma is highly reactive and it is corrosive for most materials. Using a chlorine plasma is required when a certain level of etching is expected from the process and when the materials to be removed produce volatile compounds only from the reactions with chlorine. The by-products of this process are normally dangerous and should be properly treated before releasing them into the atmosphere.


Plasma Cleaning Options

Plasma cleaning equipment, such as batch plasma, inline plasma, or strip plasma, is available for various applications. Consulting an expert can help determine the best solution based on specific needs and requirements. Overall, plasma cleaning is a secure, environmentally-conscious, and efficient method for removing unwanted materials from object surfaces.


How to Enjoy the Benefits of Plasma Cleaning

Plasma cleaning has multiple benefits over traditional cleaning techniques. It is environmentally safe, as it does not release harmful chemicals into the environment. It leaves no residue on the treated surfaces, ensuring complete cleanliness. Additionally, plasma cleaning can reach areas that solvents or other methods may not be able to access.


SCI Plasma is a well-respected organization with a team of knowledgeable experts who specialize in plasma cleaning solutions. Their expertise and experience make them valuable resources for individuals or organizations seeking assistance with plasma cleaning. Whether you have questions about the plasma cleaning process, need guidance in selecting the appropriate equipment, or require a tailored solution for your specific cleaning requirements, the experts at SCI Plasma are dedicated to helping you.


With their commitment to customer satisfaction and their deep understanding of plasma cleaning technology, you can trust the experts at SCI Plasma to deliver the expertise and support you need for successful plasma cleaning operations.

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