Organic devices like organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) or organic solar cells degrade fast when exposed to ambient air. Hence, thin-films acting as permeation barriers are needed for their protection. Atomic layer deposition (ALD) is known to be one of the best technologies to reach barriers with a low defect density at gentle process conditions. As well, ALD is reported to be one of the thinnest barrier layers, with a critical thickness - defining a continuous barrier film - as low as 5-10 nm for ALD processed Al2O3. In this work, we investigate the barrier performance of Al2O3 films processed by ALD at 80 °C with trimethylaluminum and ozone as precursors. The coverage of defects in such films is investigated on a 5 nm thick Al2O3 film, i.e. below the critical thickness, on calcium using atomic force microscopy (AFM). We find for this sub-critical thickness regime that all spots giving raise to water ingress on the 20 × 20 μm2 scan range are positioned on nearly flat surface sites without the presence of particles or large substrate features. Hence below the critical thickness, ALD leaves open or at least weakly covered spots even on feature-free surface sites. The thickness dependent performance of these barrier films is investigated for thicknesses ranging from 15 to 100 nm, i.e. above the assumed critical film thickness of this system. To measure the barrier performance, electrical calcium corrosion tests are used in order to measure the water vapor transmission rate (WVTR), electrodeposition is used in order to decorate and count defects, and dark spot growth on OLEDs is used in order to confirm the results for real devices. For 15-25 nm barrier thickness, we observe an exponential decrease in defect density with barrier thickness which explains the likewise observed exponential decrease in WVTR and OLED degradation rate. Above 25 nm, a further increase in barrier thickness leads to a further exponential decrease in defect density, but an only sub-exponential decrease in WVTR and OLED degradation rate. In conclusion, the performance of the thin Al2O3 permeation barrier is dominated by its defect density. This defect density is reduced exponentially with increasing barrier thickness for alumina thicknesses of up to at least 25 nm.
Klumbies, H., Schmidt, P., Hähnel, M., Singh, A., Schroeder, U., Richter, C., … Müller-Meskamp, L. (2015). Thickness dependent barrier performance of permeation barriers made from atomic layer deposited alumina for organic devices. Organic Electronics, 17, 138–143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgel.2014.12.003