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New gold electroplating process for microelectronics safer

Rearchers at Sandia National Laboratories have developed a process that allows intricate electroplating of gold on microelectronic devices while using a solution safer than conventional cyanide-based plating solutions.

Gold has several properties that make it desirable for use in microelectronics manufacturing. As a noble metal, it is extremely corrosion resistant. Gold also has high electrical conductivity and forms good electrical contacts, and its high melting point makes it thermally stable.

But standard gold-plating solutions are cyanide-based and can release large amounts of poisonous cyanide gas if the solution becomes too acidic. For this reason, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified the gold cyanide solutions as acutely hazardous, and special safety precautions must be taken.

In the 1970s, a gold sulfite electroplating solution was developed that contains no cyanide and is not hazardous. But until recently this solution's use for microelectronics applications has primarily been limited to protective coverings rather than circuitry. Now, Sandia researchers have applied this gold sulfite solution to form precise gold patterns for semiconductor devices.
"We have successfully plated extremely fine lines using this method," says Walter Worobey, the principal Sandia investigator who developed the new process. "The fabricated gold patterns on substrates had lines and spaces two micrometers wide with the gold four micrometers thick."

The sulfite solution also has been used by Worobey and co-researcher Dennis Rieger to fabricate miniature gold bridges to form crossovers on gallium arsenide substrates. These crossovers allow conductors to cross on the surface of electronic devices without touching or electrically shorting out.

Tests at Sandia have shown that in these applications plating efficiency was close to 100 percent and the plated gold's density approached that of pure gold.
Sandia's expertise in photolithography played a major role in selecting the materials and defining the precision patterns required. An important factor in the procedure was ensuring that the photoresist used to define the precision channels for the gold did not degrade in the alkaline sulfite solution during the electroplating process.

Worobey and Rieger, who are staff members in Sandia's Electronic Interconnections, Packaging, and Calibration Department, are continuing to refine this technology.


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