Effect of an Interfacial Layer on Electron Tunneling through Atomically Thin Al2O3 Tunnel Barriers


Electron tunneling through high-quality, atomically thin dielectric films can provide a critical enabling technology for future microelectronics, bringing enhanced quantum coherent transport, fast speed, small size, and high energy efficiency. A fundamental challenge is in controlling the interface between the dielectric and device electrodes. An interfacial layer (IL) will contain defects and introduce defects in the dielectric film grown atop, preventing electron tunneling through the formation of shorts. In this work, we present the first systematic investigation of the IL in Al2O3 dielectric films of 1-6 Å's in thickness on an Al electrode. We integrated several advanced approaches: molecular dynamics to simulate IL formation, in situ high vacuum sputtering atomic layer deposition (ALD) to synthesize Al2O3 on Al films, and in situ ultrahigh vacuum scanning tunneling spectroscopy to probe the electron tunneling through the Al2O3. The IL had a profound effect on electron tunneling. We observed a reduced tunnel barrier height and soft-type dielectric breakdown which indicate that defects are present in both the IL and in the Al2O3. The IL forms primarily due to exposure of the Al to trace O2 and/or H2O during the pre-ALD heating step of fabrication. As the IL was systematically reduced, by controlling the pre-ALD sample heating, we observed an increase of the ALD Al2O3 barrier height from 0.9 to 1.5 eV along with a transition from soft to hard dielectric breakdown. This work represents a key step toward the realization of high-quality, atomically thin dielectrics with electron tunneling for the next generation of microelectronics.


Physics, Astronomy, and Materials Science

Document Type





Al O 2 3, atomic layer deposition, electron tunneling, interfacial layer, ultrathin film deposition

Publication Date


Journal Title

ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces