In semiconductor manufacturing plasma ashing is the process of removing the photoresist from an etched wafer. Using a plasma source, a monatomic reactive species is generated. Oxygen or fluorine are the most common reactive species. The reactive species combines with the photoresist to form ash which is removed with a vacuum pump.
Typically, monatomic (single atom) oxygen plasma is created by exposing oxygen gas at a low pressure (O2) to high power radio waves, which ionise it. This process is done under vacuum in order to create a plasma. As the plasma is formed, many free radicals are created which could damage the wafer. Newer, smaller circuitry is increasingly susceptible to these particles. Originally, plasma was generated in the process chamber, but as the need to get rid of free radicals has increased, many machines now use a downstream plasma configuration, where plasma is formed remotely and the desired particles are channeled to the wafer. This allows electrically charged particles time to recombine before they reach the wafer surface, and prevents damage to the wafer surface.
Two forms of plasma ashing are typically performed on wafers. High temp ashing, or stripping, is performed to remove as much photo resist as possible, while the “descum” process is used to remove residual photo resist in trenches. The main difference between the two processes is the temperature the wafer is exposed to while in an ashing chamber.
Monatomic oxygen is electrically neutral and although it does recombine during the channeling, it does so at a slower rate than the positively or negatively charged free radicals, which attract one another. Effectively, this means that when all of the free radicals have recombined, there is still a portion of the active species available for process. Because a large portion of the active species is lost to recombination, process times may take longer. To some extent, these longer process times can be mitigated by increasing the temperature of the reaction area.