The onset and development of self-sputtering (SS) in a high power impulse magnetron sputtering (HiPIMS) discharge have been studied using a plasma chemical model and a set of experimental data, taken with an aluminum target and argon gas. The model is tailored to duplicate the discharge in which the data are taken. The pulses are long enough to include both an initial transient and a following steady state. The model is used to unravel how the internal discharge physics evolves with pulse power and time, and how it is related to features in the discharge current-voltage-time characteristics such as current densities, maxima, kinks and slopes. The connection between the self-sputter process and the discharge characteristics is quantified and discussed in terms of three parameters: a critical target current density Jcrit based on the maximum refill rate of process (argon) gas above the target, an SS recycling factor ΠSS-recycle, and an approximation of the probabilities of ionization of species that come from the target (both sputtered metal and embedded argon atoms). For low power pulses, discharge voltages UD 380 V with peak current densities below ≈ 0.2 A cm-2, the discharge is found to be dominated by process gas sputtering. In these pulses there is an initial current peak in time, associated with partial gas rarefaction, which is followed by a steady-state-like plateau in all parameters similar to direct current magnetron sputtering. In contrast, high power pulses, with UD 500 V and peak current densities above JD ≈ 1.6 A cm-2, make a transition to a discharge mode where SS dominates. The transition is found not to be driven by process gas rarefaction which is only about 10% at this time. Maximum gas rarefaction is found later in time and always after the initial peak in the discharge current. With increasing voltage, and pulse power, the discharge can be described as following a route where the role of SS increases in four steps: process gas sputtering, gas-sustained SS, self-sustained SS and SS runaway. At the highest voltage, 1000 V, the discharge is very close to, but does not go into, the SS runaway mode. This absence of runaway is proposed to be connected to an unexpected finding: that twice ionized ions of the target species play almost no role in this discharge, not even at the highest powers. This reduces ionization by secondary-emitted energetic electrons almost to zero in the highest power range of the discharge.
- high power impulse magnetron sputtering (HiPIMS) discharge
- magnetron sputtering
- plasma modeling