SFB-TR 87

Lukas Mai and colleagues on new chemistry for ultra-thin gas sensors 

© RUB, Marquard

A Bochum team has developed a new process for zinc oxide coatings that can be used in nitrogen oxide sensors and as protective coatings on plastics.
The application of zinc oxide coatings in industry is manifold and ranges from the protection of perishable goods from air to the detection of toxic nitrogen oxides. Such layers can be produced by means of atomic layer deposition (ALD), which normally uses precursor chemicals, so-called precursors, which ignite immediately in air. An interdisciplinary research team at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) has now established a new production process based on non-self-igniting precursors that takes place at such low temperatures that plastics can also be coated. The team reported in the magazine "Small", which selected the article for its title in the issue of 4 June 2020.

Applying ultra-thin coatings

To produce a sensor for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a thin layer of nanostructured zinc oxide (ZnO) must be applied to a sensor substrate and then integrated into an electrical component. Prof. Dr. Anjana Devi's team used ALD to apply ultra-thin ZnO layers to such sensor substrates.

In general, ALD processes are used in industry to miniaturize electrical components by means of ultra-thin layers, some of which are only a few atomic layers thick, while at the same time increasing the efficiency. This requires precursors that react on a surface in the ALD process to form a thin layer. "The chemistry behind ALD processes is therefore essential and has a great influence on the resulting layers," emphasizes Anjana Devi.

Safe handling and highest quality

In industry, ZnO coatings have so far been produced with an extremely reactive zinc precursor that ignites immediately in air, experts call it pyrophoric. "The key to developing a safe ALD process was to research a new, non-pyrophoric precursor that can be handled safely and is capable of producing ZnO coatings of the highest quality," said Lukas Mai, lead author of the study. "The challenge was to find an alternative chemistry capable of replacing pyrophoric, industrially used compounds".
The special feature of the new process is that it is even possible at low temperatures, which makes it possible to coat plastics. Thus, the new process is not only suitable for the production of gas sensors, but also for gas barrier layers. These are applied to plastic in industry and are used to protect sensitive goods such as food and medicines from air.

This was made possible by the interdisciplinary cooperation of natural scientists and engineers. The team included the working groups Chemistry of Inorganic Materials headed by Anjana Devi and General Electrical Engineering and Plasma Technology headed by Prof. Dr. Peter Awakowicz, researchers from Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf and the company Paragon.

The work was funded by the European Fund for Regional Development (EFRE) in the Funald project and by the German Research Foundation in the framework of the Collaborative Research Centre/Transregional TR87. Lukas Mai was supported by the Stiftung der Deutschen Wirtschaft.

adapted from Meike Drießen, RUB