Tailoring Fast Directional Mass Transport of Nano-Confined Ag–Cu Alloys upon Heating: Effect of the AlN Barrier Thickness

This study addresses the phase stability and atomic mobility of Ag–Cu40at.% nano-alloys confined by AlN in a nanomultilayered configuration during thermal treatment. To this end, nanomultilayers (NMLs) with a fixed Ag–Cu40at.% nanolayer thickness of 8 nm and a AlN barrier nanolayer with variable thickness of 4, 8, or 10 nm were deposited by magnetron sputtering on sapphire substrates and subsequently isothermally annealed for 5 or 20 min in air in the range of 200–500 °C. The microstructure of the as-deposited and heat-treated NMLs was analyzed by X-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, and energy dispersive spectroscopy. Annealing of the thicker AlN barrier layers at T > 300 °C leads to the formation of an interconnected network of line-shaped Cu­(O) protrusions on the annealed NML surface. The well-defined outflow pattern of Cu­(O) originates from the thermally induced surface cracking of the top AlN barriers with subsequent fast mass transport of Cu along the Cu/AlN interfaces toward the surface cracks. The thinnest (i.e., 4 nm thick) AlN barrier layers exhibit a relatively open grain boundary structure and act as nanoporous membranes upon heating, resulting in the formation of a dense and homogenous distribution of Cu­(O) and Ag droplets on the NML surface. These findings demonstrate that the microstructure (i.e., layer thicknesses, interface coherency, and texture) of hybrid nanolaminates can be tuned to provide defined pathways for fast, directional transport of the confined metal to the surface at relatively low temperatures, which might open new routes for low-temperature bonding of micro- and nano-scaled systems.