Nanofabrication Series: Etching


If you’ve been following along with our blog series, then you may know that etching is one of the major steps in almost any nanofabrication process. In our previous post, we described photolithography as a means of patterning a surface to create areas of a substrate that are covered with the photoresist polymer, known as masked areas, and areas that are open or exposed. After photolithography, an etching agent can be exposed to surfaces to create the desired three-dimensional nanostructures. The etching agent will wear off the unmasked areas while the areas that are covered by the resist will remain protected, this process in realm of nanofabrication is referred to as etching.

The “Etch Bay” at the Columbia University Nano Initiative Clean Room, where various reactive ion etch (RIE) systems are located, each configured with various gases to etch different materials with the desired etch profiles and depths.

Etching is a crucial step used in nanofabrication to remove substrate or excess material that has been previously laid down onto the surface. The word originates from the Dutch “etsen” which means to engrave material surfaces with acids and from the German “ätzen” which means to eat away. Although it is difficult to say who was the first to use etching as a technique, jewelry was decorated this way during the time of Queen Cleopatra (69-30 BC) of Egypt. Centuries later, Swiss artist Urs Graf, became known as an early pioneer of etching, printing from iron plates in 1513. Today, scientists and engineers have applied the technique to create nano-scale patterns that make the many devices that enhance our daily lives.

Two- and three-dimensional drawings of a perfectly isotropic (left) and anisotropic (right) etch profile, a fundamental difference in resulting etch profiles between wet and dry ion assisted etching.

Within nanofabrication, there are two main types of etching: wet and dry etching. While both techniques only differ in terms of the etching agent used whether this is “liquid-phase” in wet etching or “plasma-phase” in dry etching, both types of etching involve the removal of layers from a masked surface to create three-dimensional transfer of nanostructures.


Wet etching relies purely on chemical reactions, as the substrate is submerged in the liquid etchant and can be sensitive to temperature and concentration of the etchant in the solution. The technique is easily scalable as all that is needed is more chemical etchant to accommodate larger or several substrates. Given that the process is driven by chemical reactions, the wet etchants etch isotopically, or in all directions at equal rates. The resultant profiles then are generally rounded, etching both vertically and horizontally. Unfortunately, this horizontal etching sacrifices some feature resolution, however process engineers at times utilize this isotropic nature to undercut features by design.


A wet etch bath at the University of Michigan’s Lurie Nanofabrication Facility. The wet etch bath shown is used for removing thin-films of chrome on submerged wafers held in a Teflon wafer carrier. Wet etching allows for batch processing of several wafers at one time.

Dry etching is the process that uses beams or etchant gases to wear off material. Dry etching techniques are split into three categories: physical dry etching, chemical dry etching, and physical-chemical dry etching. Physical dry etching techniques use the kinetic energy generated by particle beams (ion, electron, and photon beams) to knock out atoms from the substrate’s surface, which subsequently evaporate and are easily removed. Although this method is suitable for almost all surfaces, not being limited to a specific chemical reaction, the reflected ions can wear off nearby surfaces also known as trench effects. Additionally, ions remove mask materials at a high rate, which can limit the depth one can etch with this technique. Secondly, chemical dry etching uses etchant gases to degrade the substrate’s surface. Gaseous by-products are desired since solid by-products can deposit on the surface and protect from further reaction. Physical-chemical dry etching, also known as reactive ion etching (RIE), is a combination of the two methods described previously. Etchant gases are excited into an ionic state and deflected perpendicularly onto the substrate’s surface under low pressure and a magnetic field. As opposed to wet etching, RIE can be more controlled, leading to etch sidewalls that are vertical or anisotropic in nature. Each etch technique results in slightly different sidewall profiles and varying etch rates for different materials.


Speaking of etch rates, what is it? The etch rate is the rate of material removed by an etchant. It is imperative to control the amount of material removed, in order to maintain design specifications of a device process. Without knowing the rate of removal, exposing the etching agent to the substrate for too long will result in wearing off too much material while leaving the etching agent for too short will result in too little material being removed. It’s important to know the etch rates for all the materials in the system, especially for the materials you’re not looking to remove (the masking layers) so that you can estimate the maximum time you can expose the material to the etching agent before damage can occur to these regions.


The plasma glow of a reactive ion etch chamber. Etch gases are supplied to a chamber under low pressure, containing the substrate to be etched. High power radio waves are then applied, resulting in the ionization of the etchant molecules which, in turn, form plasma, and electromagnetic fields direct the high energy plasma ions towards the sample to etched.

Selectivity is the ratio of the etch rate of the different materials involved in the reaction (initial material and the film/photoresist being used as the masking layer). Selectivity will determine how deep the etching agent can go in the material. High etch selectivity, when the etch rate of the mask is lower when compared to the film, allows the film exposed to be worn away at a higher rate than the mask that is covering it and this is normally desired.


Considering these parameters, it’s not that surprising that not all materials are suitable to be used in this technique. According to the Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, silicon, diamond, and category II-V compounds have properties suitable for dry etching, in which case etchant agents can be electron, ion, or photon beams that can dissolve the unmasked surfaces. For wet etching processes, several acids such as hydrofluoric acid, nitric acid, and acetic acid are commonly used as the etchant agent for silicon.