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Ion beam

An ion beam is a type of particle beam consisting of ions. Ion beams have many uses in electronics manufacturing (principally ion implantation) and other industries. A variety of ion beam sources exist, some derived from the mercury vapor thrusters developed by NASA in the 1960s.


Ion beam etching or sputtering

One type of ion beam source is the duoplasmatron. Ion beams can be used for sputtering or ion beam etching and for ion beam analysis.

Ion beam application, etching, or sputtering, is a technique conceptually similar to sandblasting, but using individual atoms in an ion beam to ablate a target. Reactive ion etching is an important extension that uses chemical reactivity to enhance the physical sputtering effect.

In a typical use in semiconductor manufacturing, a mask is used to selectively expose a layer of photoresist on a substrate made of a semiconductor material such as a silicon dioxide or gallium arsenide wafer. The wafer is developed, and for a positive photoresist, the exposed portions are removed in a chemical process. The result is a pattern left on the surface areas of the wafer that had been masked from exposure. The wafer is then placed in a vacuum chamber, and exposed to the ion beam. The impact of the ions erodes the target, abrading away the areas not covered by the photoresist.

Focused Ion Beam (FIB) instruments are also used in the design verification and/or failure analysis of semiconductor devices. Engineering prototype devices may be modified using the ion beam in order to rewire the electrical circuit. The technique may be effectively used to avoid performing a new mask run for the purpose of testing design changes. A device edit (FIB milling operation) is accomplished by focusing the ion beam on selected regions of the device in order to mill through metal or polysilicon structures. In addition to milling, it is also possible to use the ion beam to force the deposit of new conductive lines on the surface of the device. This is accomplished by injecting chemicals into the ion stream near the device surface. The interaction between the ions and the chemicals result in chemical deposition on the surface. This process is typically referred to as a FIB deposit operation.

Sputtering is also used in materials science to thin samples or specific regions of samples for transmission electron microscope analysis, or for extending surface analytical techniques such as secondary ion mass spectrometry or electron spectroscopy (XPS, AES) so that they can depth profile them.


In radiobiology a broad or focused ion beam is used to study mechanisms of iner- and intra- cellular communication, signal transduction and DNA damage and repair.


Ion beams are also used in particle therapy, most often in the treatment of cancer.

Space Applications

Ion beam produced by ion and plasma thrusters on board a spacecraft can be used to transmit a force to a nearby object (e.g. another spacecraft, an asteroid, etc.) that is irradiated by the beam. This innovative propulsion technique named Ion Beam Shepherd has been shown to be effective in the area of active space debris removal as well as asteroid deflection.

High-energy ion beams

High-energy ion beams produced by particle accelerators are used in atomic physics, nuclear physics and particle physics.


The use of ion beams as a particle beam weapon is theoretically possible, but has not been demonstrated. See particle beam weapon for more information on this type of weapon.

The current ion beams today would barely cause a human to flinch or even notice a touch if hit. The ions only stay in a beam shape if under ultra-high vacuum (UHV) conditions, making its use as a weapon futile. However, if one is trying to destroy single cells, the ion beam may be one's "weapon of choice."

In science fiction, weaponised ion beam generators are usually dubbed ion cannons.

See also

Ion source
Manfred von Ardenne Inventor of the Duoplasmatron
Particle beam
Particle therapy
Harold R. Kaufman Inventor of the mercury-vapor thruster
Ion Beam Shepherd

External links

Stopping parameters of ion beams in solids calculated by MELF-GOS model
ISOLDE - Facility dedicated to the production of a large variety of radioactive ion beams located at CERN

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