Rainer Weiss, Barry Garish and Kip Thorn share Nobel Prize in Physics

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 with one half to Rainer Weiss, LIGO/VIRGO Collaborationand, and the other half jointly to Barry C. Barish, LIGO/VIRGO Collaboration, and Kip S. Thorne, LIGO/VIRGO Collaboration, “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”

In this YouTube video, the work by Weiss et. al. is describe and also there is a live feed from the US to Switzerland where Dr. Weiss speaks to the Academy and the Swiss press. It is a very informative exchange.

LIGO interferometer

Description of the LIGO Interferometer from Royal Swedish Academy Popular Science Background article.

The vacuum systems for LIGO are quite significant. But today everyone is focused on the physics. The gravitational waves detected are generated by some of the most violent events ever conceived by humans, yet the detection of gravitational waves is quite a challenge. These space-time distortions are on the order of 1/10,000th of the diameter of an atomic nucleus.

Congratulations to the LIGO and VIRGO teams for winning this prize. This is a very exciting time for cosmology.

MKS Semiconductor and Process Technology Handbook

MKS Instruments just released a new handbook that describes many of the basic design structures and processes for semiconductors. The first section has articles describing the basic transistor structures for the devices being built today including planar and 3D structures. It starts off with a discussion of the simple P-N junction and goes right up through the transistor technologies up to the cutting edge 3D FinFET structure. It has definitions of all of the common diode and transistors.

MKS Handbook.jpg

Click the image to go to the MKS Semiconductor Devices and Process Technology ebook download page.

The handbook goes into the silicon, dielectric and interconnect materials used and their fabrication methods. It has a wealth of information of the process sequence from raw wafer to finished product.

The second section of the handbook includes vacuum technology; some vacuum basics, pump information, gauging and components. MKS has a wealth of vacuum metrology solutions and the majority are mentioned in the handbook. What is very helpful is that the articles show how all of the MKS technology solutions can be used together as subsystems within a larger system.

If you work in a section of the industry and would like to be introduced to other processes in the industry, then I would encourage you to check this out. It will give you a good encyclopedia level education in semiconductors as well as see all of the MKS technology solutions.

In other news, in case you missed it, the second edition of Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology is available. There is a discount available for readers of this blog.

The Second Edition of Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology is Now Available!

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Cover art for the book Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology, 2nd Edition 

The second edition of Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology is now available! This book contains all the information found in the first book PLUS information that is not found in any other book to date.

What’s new? There is information on the cutting edge technology being done at NIST to develop new quantum based pressure standards. This is so new that the project is moving from the concept and feasibility phase to developing the standards that will replace the mercury manometers that are the primary standards used today.

There is an extensive section describing the Granville-Phillips VQM™  (Vacuum Quality Monitor). This is a revolutionary method for measuring the gas composition in a high vacuum system based on ion trap technology.

The second edition contains an introduction to leaks and their detection.

There are now knowledge check questions at the end of each chapter.

The book is available through Amazon.com and Amazon’s European websites including Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, and Amazon.es. For larger quantities, it is recommended to order from the Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology book store.

A personal landmark is disappearing

I got a tweet this morning from UVM. That is where I earned my degrees in physics. The tweet said that there is a webcam feed to watch the Cook Science Building deconstruction. This is where I began my journey into vacuum technology. Below you can see bricks being torn off of the facade facing east towards Mount Mansfield.

Vacuum Technology, Cook Science Building.jpg

On the fourth floor, you see three big empty rooms. That is were I used to teach undergraduate physics labs to young aspiring engineers, scientists and pre-med students. Across the building  from the yellow arm on the fourth floor was my vacuum lab where I I had a glass and metal UHV system that was the heart of my thesis research. Off to the right on the fourth floor I can see the window to my office I had as a graduate student. So many memories.

The original idea was to renovate Cook, which was built in 1969. The deconstruction of Cook was priced at $4M, however the old building had a $28M maintenance cost. A new building makes good engineering sense. This is part of a master plan to increase STEM delivery at UVM.

As I look back in time, I could not see myself in my lab thinking about the day that Cook would come down. What I did know was that I was learning skills that I could take out into the work world. I can remember making the decision to dig deeper into vacuum technology as a way to stay connected with science and engineering after graduating…and putting some brass in pocket.



Vacuum Subsystems will Dominate BOM Costs

I just read a SEMI blog post describing the expansion of vacuum subsystems in the semiconductor industry. To me, this makes sense. As features continue to shrink and devices become more complex, the technology needed to control the process conditions becomes more and more important. Vacuum subsystems for semiconductor equipment can be a complex system comprising of roughing pumps, high vacuum pumps, plumbing, chambers, valves and metrology.

When I started in this business, wafers were silicon wafers four inches in diameter were the norm and six inch wafers were pretty whiz-bang. I watched as the semiconductor industry transitioned from 200mm to 300mm. As the wafers became bigger, the device features were shrinking in accordance with Moore’s Law.


Source: Vacuum Subsystems: Largest and Fastest Growing Market by By Hanning Shi and John West, VLSI Research.

The economy of scale at 300mm seems to satisfy the needs of chip makers for the time being. Recently the industry dabbled into increasing the wafer size to 450mm, but the complexity of keeping wafers flat, in one piece and keeping the uniformity across the wafer didn’t seem worth the risk. The complexity of keeping the flow uniform across a 450mm diameter wafer during a plasma process requires very sophisticated fluid flow engineering.  The chip manufactures driving the 450mm requirements began pulling out and the OEMs dropped the 450mm projects.

However, now the industry is changing the geometries of transistors from roughly two dimensions to three dimensions with much smaller features. These are driving new etch, deposition and ion implant processes. We are seeing new interconnect materials being driven by the need to make nano-scale wires. Since the features are becoming increasing smaller, 35nm, 20nm, 10nm…process conditions are much more stringent. Vacuum, gas delivery, fluid delivery, and wafer handling systems, just to name a few, are developing into much more sophisticated technologies as the requirements for higher purity and fewer particles push vacuum technology forward.

What I see in the industry is a growing opportunity for engineers to work with vacuum systems. That is why I am passionate about promoting the technology. The chart above shows it very clearly. Vacuum technology is becoming a bigger part of the spend and understanding that technology will become even more important as these projects develop in the future.

If you are new to vacuum technology or a seasoned engineering manager, you will find a wealth of information to give you a firm understanding of the art in Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology. 


Granville-Phillips/MKS Announces a novel Wide Range Cold Cathode Ionization Vacuum Gauge

It was an interesting day when I first heard about MKS’s plans to release a new wide range cold cathode gauge. I though to myself, “does the world need another 10-2 torr Cold Cathode Ionization Gauge?” Well, if that is what you are asking yourself, too then take a closer look. This transducer provides a wide measurement range of 10-7 torr to Atmosphere, eliminating the need for multiple gauges.

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Revolutionary new CCIG has a range for High Vacuum to Atmosphere. Image courtesy of MKS Instruments, Inc

The Series 523 uses two different types of discharges. The first is the normal pressure dependent discharge found in every CCIG which covers the range from 1 × 10-7 to 1 × 10-2 torr. The second range between 1 × 10-2 torr up to 10 torr is derived from a glow discharge measurements cause by the breakdown of the gas by the electric field.  Above 10 torr, the pressure is measured by the arc discharge current.  The published accuracy of the gauge is +/-50% over the range of the gauge.

The cost is contained by the elimination of expensive ceramic-to-metal seals. The 304 SST electrode structures inside the gauge are unique and made possible by using injection molding technology to build the sensor. The electrodes are held in place by the polymer that forms the vacuum envelope and the electrical feed through materials. The polymer, Polypropylene, was selected for low outgassing rate, mechanical and temperature stability and electrical properties.

The target market for this gauge is that set of processes that do not heavily rely on accuracy but just need basic vacuum level information. For applications that require higher degrees of accuracy, MKS provides a vast selection of vacuum measuring solutions.

Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology describes Cold Cathode Ionization Gauge technology as well as all the other pressure technology used in science and industry today. UMVT  is available through Amazon.com.

You can read about the MKS 523 wide range CCIG on the MKS website.

LIGO Vacuum Systems and Gravitational Waves

LIGO is an acronym for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. The purpose of LIGO is to detect gravitational waves. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916 in his general theory of relativity. Einstein’s mathematics showed that massive accelerating objects (such as neutron stars or black holes orbiting each other) would disrupt space-time in such a way that ‘waves’ of distorted space would radiate from the source. In the semiconductor industry, I am concerned with a final product on a microscopic, nanometer scale on microprocessor chips. LIGO is at the other far end of the curve dealing with massive object colliding in space.

The problem is that detecting gravitational waves is an extremely difficult task. The waves will cause distortions in space on earth that are shorter than the dimension of an atom’s nucleus. In fact the distortions are on the order of 1/10,000th of the diameter of an atomic nucleus. The detector has to be super sensitive and in a very quiet location. Vacuum technology plays a key role in this experiment.


LIGO Livingston. Courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory

LIGO consists of two interferometers, each with two 4 km (2.5 mile) long arms arranged in the shape of an “L”. Each chamber encloses 10,000 cubic meters of volume. One interferometer is located in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. The reason for two is that the earth is a very active place with lots of human hustle and bustle. There are earth quakes and storms. So if the detectors both capture the same signal, then that is strong evidence that the signal is a gravitational wave.

When gravitational waves pass through the system, the distance between the end mirrors and the beam splitter lengthen in one arm and at the same time shorten in the other arm in such a way that the light waves from the two arms go in and out of phase with each other. When the light waves are in phase with each other, they add together constructively and produce a bright beam that illuminates the detectors. When they are out of phase, they cancel each other out and there is no signal. Thus, the gravitational waves from a major cosmic event, like the merger of two black holes, will cause the signal to flicker, as seen here

Gravitational waves sent out from a pair of colliding black holes have been converted to sound waves, as heard in this animation. On September 14, 2015, LIGO observed gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes, each about 30 times the mass of our sun. The incredibly powerful event, which released 50 times more energy than all the stars in the observable universe, lasted only fractions of a second.

In the first two runs of the animation, the sound-wave frequencies exactly match the frequencies of the gravitational waves. The second two runs of the animation play the sounds again at higher frequencies that better fit the human hearing range. The animation ends by playing the original frequencies again twice.

As the black holes spiral closer and closer in together, the frequency of the gravitational waves increases. Scientists call these sounds “chirps,” because some events that generate gravitation waves would sound like a bird’s chirp.

Audio Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

The lasers are operated in a vacuum level on the order of 10-9 torr. This ensures that there are no air currents causing distortion of the laser beams either through transmission of sound or thermal energy. Also it lessens the chance of particle movement in the vacuum system.


Spiral welding a section of a vacuum tube. Courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory

LIGO’s vacuum tubes were constructed of spiral-welded 3 mm thick 304L stainless steel. With its relatively low carbon content, 304L steel is resistant to corrosion, especially at the critical welded seams. The 1.2 m diameter beam tubes were created in 19 to 20 m-long segments, rolled into a tube with a continuous spiral weld. To prevent collapse, LIGO’s tubes are supported with stiffener rings that provide a significant layer of resistance to buckling under the extreme pressure of the atmosphere. The tubes must withstand these stresses for at least 20 years.

Evacuating the chambers took 40 days of constant pumping to evacuate them to their optimal operating pressure. In that time, turbomolecular pumps removed the bulk of the air in the tubes while the tubes themselves were heated to 150-170 degrees C for 30 days to drive out residual gases.

The gases that remain in the system are primarily H2 and water vapor. There are liquid nitrogen cryogenic panels in place to capture the stray water molecule and ion pumps to capture H2 gas. There is so much more technology involved in the LIGO detectors. I encourage you to visit the LIGO website. Although LIGO depends on extreme vacuum engineering, the vacuum technologies involved are explained in Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology.

NOTE: On June 1st, 2017, LIGO made their third detection of a gravitational wave event from the collapse of 32 solar mass black hole and a 19 solar mass black hole forming one large black hole of 49 solar masses. The means that two solar masses of material were transformed into energy by the collision.

Working principles of a turbomolecular pump

Turbomolecular pumps are found in every semiconductor fab, the vast majority of helium leak detectors and research laboratories. Yet most never give them much thought, one simply roughs out the vacuum chamber and spin them up. In a few minutes, your chamber is in the high vacuum range.

Today I want to introduce to you the working principles of these pumps. First is a video that shows how a Pfeiffer HiPace 2300 moves gas molecules from the chamber to the exhaust port of the turbomolecular pump. As you watch gas flow through the pump in the video, get the idea that the pumping principle is to increase the probability that the gas molecules will be impelled by the rotor (the spinning blades) into the stator (stationary) blades towards higher concentrations of gas. Pumping is achieved by directing the gas molecules from the low pressure inlet to the higher pressure exhaust port.

Turbomolecular pumps do not have liquid or contact seals. The rotor blades are typically spinning a few tenths of a millimeter from the envelop of the pump and the rotor shaft is a few tents of a millimeter from the stator blades. These gaps are necessary for the operation of the pump, however they do allow a small fraction of the gas to backstream (flow backwards, if you will) through the pump. This is one of the reasons that turbomolecular pumps must have a mechanical pump providing a rough vacuum pressure on the exhaust port. In other words, the turbomolecular pump cannot provide sufficient compression to move gas to atmospheric pressures and they need to be “backed” by a roughing pump.

The video below was produced by Agilent. It shows how a typical turbomolecular pump is built.

I hope this gives you some basic understandings of turbomolecular pumps. Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology has a section devoted to turbomolecular pumps. It covers the development of the pumping principles, the operation and safety considerations when implementing turbomolecular pumps. UMVT  is available for $59 at Amazon.com. You will find information UMVT that is not available in any other book to date.

Get an Intuitive Feel for Gas Properties with this Simulator

Today I want to bring attention to the PhET Gas Properties Simulator. This is a wonderful tool that allows a learner to interact with all of the levers in a gas system. The tool is set up so that the learner can add gas particles into a chamber and then see the results as the system’s parameters (temperature, volume, etc.) are changed.

In the figure below, I introduced equal amounts of a heavy gas and a light gas (60 of each) and then opened the lid on the top of the chamber a bit to see what happens. After letting the simulation run for a short while I could see that the light gas was escaping faster than the heavier gas, the temperature was dropping in the system along with the pressure.

Capture PhET1.PNG

60 heavy gas molecules and 60 light gas molecules were introduced into the chamber. The lid was cracked open and gas was allowed to escape. At the time of the screen shot, 55 heavy gas molecules and 50 light molecules remained in the chamber.

There are also some graphs that give insight of the molecular speeds and energies of the molecules. Lessons and exercises are available on the PhET website.

As a vacuum technologist, I think in terms of molecular flow where the molecules interact with the walls of a conduit rather than collide with each other. When opening the lid to allow that gas to expand out into space, it occurred to me that this is also a good tool to help convey the idea that in order for a pump to remove a gas molecule from a chamber, the molecule has to enter the pump’s inlet. Since the lid has a variable aperture, it can be use to introduce the concept of how a high vacuum pump’s pump speed is dependent on the inlet diameter .

The Gas Properties Simulator is suitable for high school, college, and continuing education students. I have loaded it onto my work laptop and will be using this in my corporate vacuum lectures in the future. I hope you will find it useful too.

Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology discusses the gas properties that can be explored with this simulator. UMVT also discusses vacuum pumps and pressure measurement.

Cryopumps for Executives and other Layfolk

I was once asked by my corporate executives to explain how cryopumps work with the orders, “Keep the physics out of it, Steve.”

“Hmmm…”, I thought to myself, “How the devil and I going to do that?” And there was


Cryopump figure from US6263679

the challenge. When dealing with the top executives, you don’t want to start the lecture with, “First there was a Big Bang…” and then talk about the history of the universe and how that lead to cryopumps. The executives were facing some technology challenges and they needed to understand actually what cryopumps are, what they do and why use a cryopump instead of a turbomolecular pump.

Then I realized that I although my execs are highly skilled engineers, they do not live and breathe vacuum technology day in and day out like I do. After all, that is why I am on the payroll, so they don’t have to put attention on the vacuum equipment. This post was inspired by the presentation that I put together for my execs, “Cryopumps for Layfolk”


We all have had the observation that frost and ice forms on a cold surface. Most of us were born after the advent of the frost-free refrigerators. Those of us who were not can remember the times when mom and dad had to defrost the freezer in the middle of summer when high humidity condensed and froze on the walls of the freezer. (I am in that latter mix.)

You may ask, “What does this has to do with vacuum technology?” That is a fair question.

Consider a closed chamber with a fixed amount air inside. That air exerts a pressure on the inside surface of the chamber.


Now let’s make the chamber wall so cool that the gas freezes on the side of the wall. Molecules that are taken out of the gas phase and made into a solid phase no longer contribute to the chamber pressure. Mr Freeze.JPG

This is the basic principle of cryopumping, use cold surfaces to capture molecules that are in a gaseous state so they do not contribute to the pressure in the chamber. There are three methods of capture.

The first method of capture is condensation, the process in which a gas changes state into a liquid, usually when it comes in contact with a cold surface. This is an excellent method of dehumidifying a room in the hot summer, but it is not very useful in high vacuum systems. Depending on the temperature, the liquid can easily revert back into a gaseous state and the pressure will remain relatively high.


In the chamber below we have a mixture of gases, hydrogen, Argon and water vapor. The total pressure in the chamber is a sum of the partial pressures of each of the gases. I have chosen these three gases because they are each captured differently in a cryopump, as you will see.


Now let’s put a cold surface in the system at 35ºF. This is cold enough to condense the water vapor, but the liquid water is still fairly mobile and will tend to drip in the chamber. We may expect a slight decrease in pressure. However the dripping in the chamber is not acceptable.Capture2.JPG


The second method is to capture gas with very cold surfaces. This is known as cryosorption. When a gas molecule strikes a cold surface and remains, it gives up heat to the surface. It can remain in solid form if the temperature is below the freezing point of the gas at the system pressure. This depends on temperature and pressure. 

The way to capture gas and have it remain is to keep the surface temperature well below the freezing temperature of the gas.

Let’s take our system and put a cold surface in that is well below the freezing point of water at the desired pressure. Here we have the surface chilled to 65K. At that temperature, nearly all of the water in the chamber that strikes the 65K surface will remain in solid form, thus it is no longer able to contribute to the pressure in the chamber and the pressure drops accordingly. A surface at 65K is cold enough to pump water vapor and many hydrocarbons.


The 65K surface is not cold enough to cryosorb H2 or Ar, so they will remain in a gaseous state. Some of the H2 and Ar may become trapped in the water ice, however a more efficient way to pump H2 and Ar is to put another surface into the chamber chilled to 14K.



The 14K surface is cold enough to freeze out the argon. It will also capture N2, CO, CO2, Kr, O2 and other such condensable  gases. This leaves the non-condensable gases such as H2, He and Ne.

In our system, we still have the H2 gas remaining. There is a third cryopumping mechanism that is employed, cryotrapping. This method of pumping is done by taking a porous substance and chilling it down to a cryogenic temperature. When a gas molecule lands on the surface inside one of the pores, it will give up it thermal energy and reside there for an extended period of time. The colder the substance, the longer the gas will stay on the surface. In the days before dry roughing pumps, canisters of Zeolite were chilled in liquid nitrogen. The gas would then be cryotrapped in the high surface area Zeolite.

Another material is coconut charcoal. This has a high surface area and is extremely porous. Charcoal is typically cooled to between 9K and 15K for the purpose of cryotrapping H2. Capture5.JPG

As the charcoal becomes saturated with H2, the ability of the charcoal to pump H2 will diminish. In order to rejuvenate the pump speed, the charcoal is warmed up and the hydrogen is liberated.

Now lets add a layer of porous charcoal on the 14K surface. Now we have a means to pump every gas that will be found in a vacuum system and the pressure drops accordingly.


Now that we know how to pump gases with cryogenic surfaces, we can take a look at the application of these methods.

Capture7.PNGThe construction of a cryopump is built around the cold-head cylinder. Inside the cylinder is a reciprocating “displacer” which is like a hollow piston which compressed helium is allowed to expand. There is a whole thermodynamic refrigeration cycle associated with this that is beyond the scope of this piece. I do have it explained in detail in the book Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology.

The figure to the left is from UMVT pg 206. Inside the cryopump, mounted to the refrigerator is the radiation shield. This surface is kept at 80K in this illustration and is set anywhere from 65K to 100K depending on the cryopump model. In my descriptions above, I used 65K to match our process requirements.

The radiation shield at 80K is thermally connected to the inlet 80K condensing array. Inside the pump, the top of the refrigerator is a cold stage that operates at 14K. An array containing bare surfaces and surfaces covered with charcoal is affixed to the 14K stage. Now let’s see how it all works together.


The cryopump is attached to a chamber. Water vapor in the chamber strikes the 80K frontal array and is cryosorbed onto the surface. Gases that do not cryosorb at 80K are allowed to enter into the pump. Gases such as Ar, N2, O2, etc. are cryosorbed onto the 14K surfaces and the He, Ne and H2 are cryotrapped in the charcoal. In most cryopumps, the charcoal is protected such that the condensable gases will strike a bare surface first, leaving the charcoal relatively free for trapping the non-condensable gases.Capture9.PNG

This particular design of a cryopump is used where there isn’t an appreciable amount of H2 in the chamber. It is easier for gases to strike the bare 14K surface first, which means the H2 has to make several collisions inside the pump before it becomes cryotrapped. This may reduce the H2 pump speed, which a compromise for this arrangement.

You may ask, “Why not just make everything 14K and be done with it?” There are two stages where arrays are attached to the cryopump refrigerator. The 80K stage (known as the first stage) can handle much higher amounts of the heat, 45 watts is a typical value. The 14K stage (know as the 2nd stage) can only handle on the order of 8 watts. Thus the 80K stage is used to handle the heat load from the external pump walls and the 14K stage only sees a 66K temperature difference rather than a 270K difference from the room temperature vacuum vessel wall.

There are many safety protocols that must be followed. Cryopumps are “capture” pumps, meaning that they store the gas pumped rather than compressing and exhausting it as in the cases of turbomolecular pumps and mechanical roughing pumps. Once the cryopump reaches capacity for a gas, the pump speed suffers. At that point the cryopump must be “regenerated” The pump is allowed to warm up and the gas is liberated. Unless the gas can escape, it can reach extremely high pressures at room temperature. In order to prevent the vacuum vessel from rupturing and creating a safety hazard, the gas is allowed to exhaust through a poppet valve that opens at just above atmospheric pressure.

Since a great deal of gas can be stored in the pump, proper safety precautions must be followed so that the ambient air is still breathable in the lab or reactive byproducts do not cause other hazardous conditions. Be sure to read and follow all safety information in the pump’s manual.

Finally, I have talked a great deal about pumping H2 with cryopumps. Processes involving H2 can create explosive conditions and there are a set of safety protocols specifically for H2. Of particular danger are the processes that produce ozone. Ozone is very reactive in cryopumps during the regeneration process. I bring this points up not to scare you away from cryopumps, I just want you to be aware.

I hope that you found this little primer helpful if you have not been exposed to cryopump technology before. In Understanding Modern Vacuum Technology, you will find a wealth of information about cryopumps, a detailed description of the closed loop helium refrigerator and information about cryopump safety.