Improving Product Performance with Ions

August 1, 2004
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Ionic plasma deposition can improve the surface characteristics of high-tech ceramics and composites by providing tightly controlled coating densities and dispersions

Ionic plasma deposition relies on plasma, the fourth state of matter.


Coatings are an important part of many high-tech products. They add electrical conductivity, wear resistance, corrosion protection and other important properties to the underlying substrate. Unfortunately, many conventional metal coating technologies used in the ceramic industry are susceptible to a wide range of problems and defects.

"Metal coating technology has remained relatively constant," says John Petersen, who has extensively studied the performance of traditional metal coatings at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge National Laboratories. "Industrial applications have not kept pace with the requirements for super materials. In the ceramic industry, traditional metallization treatments have been applied superficially, using varying particle sizes and uneven dispersion that is prone to cracking and chipping and often results in an uneven finish."

Petersen turned his 17 years of experience in the research and development of wear-, heat- and corrosion-resistant materials, along with his ongoing research into film materials for aircraft turbine blades and components with GE and Pratt and Whitney, to solving the problem. The result was a nanotechnology that is making waves in the materials science world. Called ionic plasma deposition (IPD), the technology impregnates metals and ceramics into substrates, thereby significantly enhancing surface characteristics.

Petersen decided to partner with Rod Ward, who had served as senior design engineer at Cray Research for the Cray III Supercomputer and founded Rapid Prototype, which provides high-tech design prototypes to many Fortune 500 companies. In 2002, Vince Sciortino, an expert in polymer technologies from Motorola, came on board, and Ionic Fusion Corp. was formed in Longmont, Colo., to market the proprietary, low heat vacuum deposition technology. Joe Ryan joined the company as president and chief operating officer in 2002, bringing with him 23 years of international business and marketing experience, most recently as senior vice president of Sensormatic Electronic Corp.

Petersen, who now serves as the company's chief technology officer, believes the ceramic industry will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the proprietary vacuum deposition process, although many other industries can also benefit.

According to Ryan, "R&D managers for market leaders in research partnerships with us say that IPD is on the cutting edge of materials science. We hear comments like, 'I didn't know you could do that,' when we introduce the IPD process."

Ceramic quartz gravimeter float bearings, metallized with the IPD process.

How IPD Works

The IPD process can take most materials on the periodic table-as well as multi-alloys, multioxycarbonitrides and precious metal combinations-and impregnate them into a wide variety of substrate materials, including ceramic, crystal, quartz and composite materials. The process is performed in a vacuum to remove all contaminants, water vapor and oxygen. High kinetic energies at ambient temperature drive the ions of the selected target material into the selected substrate. The depositing material ions are accelerated through proprietary devices to ensure that the depositing species are the correct energy for the process and substrate material. This allows for a broad range of custom stoichiometries and is one example of the great adaptability possible with ionic fusion technology.

"We can impregnate many materials-even paper-with target metals and ceramics because our IPD process is done at ambient temperature," says Ward, who is chairman and chief executive officer of Ionic Fusion. "We can easily customize the process to meet specific application requirements."

Unlike other deposition technologies, the IPD process can be carefully controlled for particle size, density and rate of dispersion. This high degree of control-coupled with the energy generated-enables the ion particles to be driven into the substrate material to a depth and uniformity of application never before possible.

In recent tests by NASA, the ion penetration achieved a depth of 13 microns. In other tests, the high deposition capability of the IPD process enabled the creation of an extremely dense copper with super high conductibility, which eliminated the need to use highly toxic beryllium in a test of linear accelerators.

In comparative studies at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, more than 60 coating and plating technologies have been tested for use in the highly reactive environment of superconducting linear accelerators. The IPD process outperformed the other technologies in each area tested, including adhesion, purity, corrosion protection, wear resistance and uniformity. The proprietary test results showed the lowest count of impurities in all of the copper surface treatments tested, with the least number of vacancies and voids, and a surface free of pinholes. Testing of acid immersion could not remove the impregnated copper from the 316L stainless steel housing. Hardness and abrasion testing confirmed the superior adhesion of the copper to the interior surfaces, and the surface finish (measured by radio frequency reflection) was very smooth.

IPD technology also enables impregnating in 360 degrees, to almost any length, and on two sides simultaneously. Materials can be applied in multi-layered stacks with the assurance that each film retains the correct mix of target components. Process times and rates are monitored to establish batch-to-batch uniformity, and throughput is highly efficient and limited only to the structural integrity of the substrate material.

The IPD process offers high efficiency and cost effectiveness that other traditional metallization processes can't match. According to Mike Majercak, vice president of Majer Precision Engineering in Tempe, Ariz., and a user of IPD technology, "The technology will replace traditional coatings technology in manufacturing."



New Solutions to Long-Standing Problems

Many conventional coating processes allow undesirable film variations when the substrate is not directly in the plasma. This problem is eliminated with the IPD technology because density and dispersion can be strictly controlled, even during the deposition of multiple films in the same production run.

As a result of the advanced nature of the IPD process, electronics manufacturers can solve the problem of metallizing high-aspect-ratio structures, such as trenches and vias, which have a vertical dimension greater than their lateral dimension. The IPD process delivers uniform plasma to the sidewall and bottom of the most miniscule cavities. As a result, trenches are covered and holes are plated, unlike applications of other vacuum deposition technologies, such as sputtering, where this is not uniformly possible. Current applications of IPD technology include seed layers for hermetically sealed vias of .006 in. diameter in a ceramic substrate.

Electronics manufacturers also find that the speed bumps that reduce the electron mean free path-conductor roughness and grain boundaries-are greatly reduced with the IPD process, which is totally conformal and can evenly deposit the target material into the substrate regardless of whether the surface morphology is textured, porous, rigid or flexible.

The IPD process adds strength to ceramic materials because it doesn't just coat-it impregnates. Microscopic cracks that occur naturally in the ceramics manufacturing process are strengthened with the properties of the target metal. IPD metallized ceramics can be finished to simulate gold, silver, bronze and other surface finishes that will not crack or peel. When precious metals are actually required, the efficiency of the IPD process limits the amount necessary to a fraction of the amount needed with traditional coating technologies, which reduces production costs while ensuring a high level of product quality.

One of the most promising short-term applications involves using a ceramic substrate for solid-state sensors. Working with a world leader in sensors, Ionic Fusion is designing, prototyping and producing solid-state ceramic-based sensors for the detection of potentially poisonous gases.



IPD arc discharge from source.

Partnering for Innovative Developments

The IPD process is also leading to some exciting new developments in fields such as biomedical, energy and space exploration. Medical device manufacturers-including stent, dental implant and prosthetic implant producers, as well as soft-tissue implant manufacturers-are using IPD to provide characteristics ranging from wear resistance to infection prevention. For example, one AgO2 application is anti-microbial and can inhibit infection and other problems in catheters, stents and many other medical applications that are being brought to market. "We are on the verge of some real breakthroughs with our medical devices research," says Ryan.

Additionally, major energy companies are working with Ionic Fusion to create new and more efficient hydrogen fuel cell technology. "Our catalytic fuel cell membrane work with bipolar plates is promising," says Petersen. "We've just gotten our first round of venture capital, and we'll use it to advance our medical and fuel cell work."

The IPD technology is on its way to the sun, thanks to NASA, and has played an important role in the success of NASA's SIRTF space telescope launched in August 2003. Right now, Ionic Fusion is focused on partnering with innovative companies to harness super materials to solve other challenging and rewarding problems.

"We're eager to work with forward-looking companies that can grasp how much the IPD technology can help their business," says Ryan. "We're ready to show them solutions that will make them say, 'I didn't know you could do that.' We can-and much more."

For more information about IPD technology, contact Ionic Fusion at 105 S. Sunset St., Suite T, Longmont, CO 80501; (303) 485-8111; fax (303) 485-8866; e-mail vince@ionic-fusion.com ; or visit http://www.ionicfusion.com .

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