Determination of refractive index and layer thickness of nm-thin films via ellipsometry


Recent technological advances have led to development of various fields that recurrently require the characterization of very thin layers. It is known that the properties of films: optical and mechanical strength, can be tuned by accurately controlling the film thickness. Several techniques such as surface plasmon resonance, quartz crystal microbalance and ellipsometry are available for this purposes. Ellipsometry is a measurement and data analysis optical technique based on classical optics. This technique is capable of measuring two film properties: refractive index and thickness, with high precision, simultaneously. Unfortunately, the technique only works if the film thickness is sufficiently large, say exceeding 15nm. Below this value, the film thickness and refractive index are coupled parameters and cannot be determined independently.

To this note, recent research undertaken by Dr. Peter Nestler and Professor Christiane Helm from University of Greifswald in Germany developed a novel technique that would unlock the held up potential of ellipsometry. “I always deemed this limitation an unsatisfying blemish in the otherwise highly elegant mathematics underlying ellipsometry” said Nestler. To be more specific, they exploited Drude’s approach to calculate the complex reflection coefficients from electromagnetic theory. They hoped that the latter approach would allow determine the first and second ellipsometric moments, which in this case represents the properties of the thin film and independent of incident angle. Their work is published in the research journal, Optics Express.

Briefly, the researchers started the experimental setup by undertaking the thin film approximation so as to reveal the thickness and index of refraction of a non-absorbing nm-thick layer via ellipsometry. Next, they plotted the real part of the ellipsometric ratio against the square of the imaginary part for a series of samples that could be as small as the uncoated substrate and one value of film thickness. They then calculated the slopes of the plotted graphs. Eventually, they characterized the nanometer-thick silicon oxide films, observed the growth of a polyelectrolyte multilayer, and quantified a parameter map obtained by imaging ellipsometry.

The authors observed that the slope of the straight line depended on refractive index, but not on film thickness. The two researchers also noted that by knowing the refractive index of the film, one could calculate the film thickness which was seen to depend on the distance between specific points in the plotted graph. Furthermore, by characterizing the nanometer-thick silicon oxide films and observing the growth of a polyelectrolyte multilayer, the researchers were able to demonstrate the potential for diverse application that their new approach could be employed for.

Nestler and Helm study has successfully presented a novel alternative technique to compute the thickness and refractive index from an ellipsometric ratio. The researchers here employed Drude’s definition to carry out a series of expansion to the second order. It has been seen that the developed slope yields the refractive index while the interval between the points gives the thickness of the film. Altogether, this novel approach enables one to determine both thickness and refractive index parameters independently, even for very thin films which could not be described unambiguously up to now.

About the author

Dr. Peter Nestler carried out his diploma thesis on polyelectrolyte multilayers at the University of Greifswald, Germany, in the year 2010. This was followed by doctoral work in the same field. In 2013, he suspended his PhD and worked as a coordinator in establishing an interdisciplinary doctoral graduate program funded by the German Research foundation. In 2016, Peter Nestler received his PhD degree in physics for the thesis entitled ‘Investigations of adsorption and diffusion of polyelectrolytes in polyelectrolyte multilayers by in-situ ellipsometry and neutron reflectometry’. His research interest in structure and composition of thin organic films has inspired him to the present work.

Subsequently, he joined Greifswald research center ZIK HIKE which focuses on humoral immune responses in cardiovascular disease. Presently, he is working on project ‘PredicTOOL’ elucidating what makes human proteins immunogenic funded by the European Research Council.

About the author

Prof. Christiane A. Helm studied physics at the Technical University of Munich (Germany) and received her PhD in 1983. During this time, she characterized model lipid membranes with X-ray techniques in the lab of Prof. Erich Sackmann. She was supervised by Prof. Helmuth Möhwald who introduced her to the concept of optimizing a method to learn the most about the investigated system. After a postdoctoral stay in Santa Barbara (USA, 1988-1990) and a position as junior group leader in Mainz (1990-1996), she got her first professorship at Saarland University in 1999. A year later, she moved to Greifswald. Central topics of her research are thin films consisting of self-organizing systems, and for biological applications. The work featured was motivated by her interest in electrically active implants.



Peter Nestler, Christiane A. Helm. Determination of refractive index and layer thickness of nm-thin films via ellipsometry. Vol. 25, No. 22 | 30 Oct 2017 | Optics Express 27077

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