Research Article: The influence of a brittle Cr interlayer on the deformation behavior of thin Cu films on flexible substrates: Experiment and model

Date Published: May 01, 2015

Publisher: Elsevier Science

Author(s): Vera M. Marx, Florian Toth, Andreas Wiesinger, Julia Berger, Christoph Kirchlechner, Megan J. Cordill, Franz D. Fischer, Franz G. Rammerstorfer, Gerhard Dehm.


Thin metal films deposited on polymer substrates are used in flexible electronic devices such as flexible displays or printed memories. They are often fabricated as complicated multilayer structures. Understanding the mechanical behavior of the interface between the metal film and the substrate as well as the process of crack formation under global tension is important for producing reliable devices. In the present work, the deformation behavior of copper films (50–200 nm thick), bonded to polyimide directly or via a 10 nm chromium interlayer, is investigated by experimental analysis and computational simulations. The influence of the various copper film thicknesses and the usage of a brittle interlayer on the crack density as well as on the stress magnitude in the copper after saturation of the cracking process are studied with in situ tensile tests in a synchrotron and under an atomic force microscope. From the computational point of view, the evolution of the crack pattern is modeled as a stochastic process via finite element based cohesive zone simulations. Both, experiments and simulations show that the chromium interlayer dominates the deformation behavior. The interlayer forms cracks that induce a stress concentration in the overlying copper film. This behavior is more pronounced in the 50 nm than in the 200 nm copper films.

Partial Text

In order to advance the reliability of flexible electronics such as paper-like displays or flexible sensors [1–6], it is important to investigate and understand the mechanisms which lead to mechanical and electrical failure of the whole device. These lightweight and flexible devices have to work under different environmental conditions like bending, compressive, or tensile forces as well as under various temperatures. Delamination of the conducting metal film (usually Cu or Ag) from the substrate may result in the loss of electrical functionality. To improve the adhesion strength different brittle interlayers can be used, for example Cr, Ta or Ti [7–10], which form a strong bond with the C atoms of the polymer [11,12]. Oxygen plasma treatments prior to film deposition have also shown to improve the adhesion of Cr to a polyimide substrate [13].

The typical cracking behavior of brittle-like metal films on polymer substrates was observed in all studied Cu and Cu/Cr films, but is more pronounced in the Cu/Cr films due to the higher density of cracks that formed in comparison to the Cu films, which shows substantial strain localization via neck formation (see Figs. 4 and 5). Other ductile film systems have also shown brittle-like behavior in the presence of a brittle interlayer, for example Cu with a Ti interlayer [7], Cu with a Ta interlayer [10], and Au with a Cr interlayer [45]. From the experimental results (Fig. 3a), one can see that at higher strains the deformation behavior of the Cu films differs substantially in character from that of the Cu/Cr films. In the longitudinal direction, the Cu/Cr film stresses decrease more toward compressive stresses with decreasing film thickness, while the bare Cu films show the opposite behavior, namely the thicker films show lower longitudinal film stresses than the thinner films. For the bare Cu films, it is assumed that the film thickness and the as-deposited grain size dominate the behavior in regions I and II. This is the reason behind the 50 nm film having the largest peak stress and saturation stress compared to the 200 nm Cu film, since this film has the smallest grain size. It should be mentioned that for pure Cu and Cu/Cr films the Cu grain sizes are very similar. This leads to stress values which increase equally for the same Cu film thicknesses (i.e. 50, 100 or 200 nm of Cu) with increasing strain (Region I) up to the point where the brittle Cr layer causes early necking or cracking in the attached Cu films. After the films deform via necking or cracking, the measured film stresses are averaged values for the inhomogeneous stress field and are, thus, not representative for the strength of the Cu layer.

In this study, in situ tensile tests in the synchrotron as well as under an AFM were performed on various thicknesses of Cu films, with and without a Cr interlayer, to investigate the deformation behavior such as the crack morphology and the stress state during straining with the influence of the brittle interlayer of particular interest. The experiments have shown that the Cr interlayer dominates the deformation behavior. At low strains, all film stresses of the bare Cu and the Cu/Cr films are influenced by the film thickness and the grain size, the thinner the films the higher the maximum peak stresses (see Fig. 3, Region I). At higher strains (in the crack saturation range), the two film systems start to behave differently. In Region II, the Cu/Cr films are influenced not only by the film thickness and grain size but also by the brittle Cr interlayer. Bare Cu films still follow the “smaller is stronger” trend where the thinnest film with the smallest grain size exhibits the highest film stresses. In contrast, the Cu/Cr films show the opposite trend where the thinnest films have the smallest film stresses in the crack saturation range. In this case, the brittle Cr interlayer forms cracks which induce a stress concentration in the overlying Cu film, where the cracks can either be blunted by the Cu film or can propagate into the Cu film. It can be concluded that usually all adhesion promoting interlayers which are brittle, such as Cr, Ti or Ta, will initiate failure in the attached film upon exposure to mechanical loading [7,10,45].