Improving the electrical and structural stability of highly piezoresistive nickel–carbon sensor thin films

The family of sputter deposited granular metal-based carbon-containing sensor films is known for their high sensitivity transforming force-dependent strain into electrical resistance change. Among them nickel–carbon thin films possess a gauge factor of up to 30, compared to only 2 for traditional sensor films of metal alloys. This high sensitivity is based on disordered interparticle tunneling through barriers of graphite-like carbon walls between metal–carbon particles of columnar shape. Force and pressure sensors would benefit a lot from the elevated piezoresistivity. A disadvantage, however, is a disturbing temporal creep and drift of the resistance under load and temperature. This contribution shows how to stabilize such sensor films. A significant stabilization is achieved by partially replacing nickel with chromium, albeit at the expense of sensitivity. The more chromium used in these NixCr1−x-C layers, the higher the optimum annealing temperature can be selected and the better the electrical stabilization. A good compromise while maintaining sensitivities well above the standard of 2 is identified for films with x=0.5 to 0.9, stabilized by optimized temperature treatments. The stabilizing effect of chromium is revealed by transmission electron microscopy with elemental analysis. The post-annealing drives segregation processes in the layer material. While the interior of the layer is depleted of chromium and carbon, boundary layers are formed. Chromium is enriched near the surface boundary, oxidized in air and forms chromium-rich oxide sub-layers, which are chemically very stable and protect against further reactions and corrosion. As a result, creep and drift errors are greatly reduced, so that the optimized sensor coatings are now suitable for widespread use.