Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Effect of Silicon Content in Functional Properties of Thin Films

By Henry S. Vanegas, Jose E. Alfonso and Jhon J. Olaya

Submitted: November 21st 2018Reviewed: February 25th 2019Published: April 9th 2019

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.85435

Downloaded: 872


Silicon (Si) has been the paradigm of the electronic industry, because it has been used in fabrication of different electronic circuit elements such as diodes, operational amplifiers, transistors, and in the last few decades, it has been the base material of the development of solar energy industry. However, other research fields in which the physical and chemical properties of Si have demonstrated to be relevant to applications in areas such as the mechanical, optical, electrical, and electrochemical are less known. Therefore, it is relevant to know the technology that has generated materials with new or better physical and chemical properties, such as the nanocomposite materials that have been growing in thin films. These films exhibiting new properties with respect to the bulk material and with the addition of Si, have demonstrated to improve the properties of the transition metal nitride (MeN), obtaining thin films with a high nanohardness, wear resistance, corrosion resistance, and high thermal stability. Therefore, the main objective of this chapter is to know the role that plays the incorporation Si in growth, microstructure, chemical composition, and functional properties of ZrN thin films.


  • silicon
  • thin films
  • incorporation
  • mechanical
  • optical
  • electrical

1. Introduction

Thin films have been widely used in different application fields such as in chemical as diffusion barrier, in electrochemical as films for protection against corrosion, in mechanical as hard and wear resistance coating, in optical as reflection and antireflection coating, and in electronic area as conductor or insulator material [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12].

Different chemical elements or compounds have been used to deposit thin films, which have been shown to improve the surface properties of a material (substrate). Among all these compounds, we find that the transition metal nitrides (MeN) have been widely used in mechanical applications due to their high hardness and wear resistance [2, 13, 14, 15, 16]. However, it has been found that the addition of a third element may improve the physical and chemical properties of MeN due to a change that this new element generates in the microstructure of these materials [1, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30]. These structures are called nanocomposite, and there are two different groups of hard nanocomposite films, for instance: (i) crystalline/amorphous nanocomposites and (ii) crystalline/crystalline nanocomposites.

An element used to improve the properties of MeN is the silicon. In the published literature (Table 1), it has been found that the Si addition generated the formation of two phases: a nanocrystalline of MeN and an amorphous phase of silicon nitride (Si3N4), which improved the physical and chemical properties of MeN [17, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 28, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66]. It has been demonstrated that these nanocomposite thin films have high nanohardness, wear resistance, corrosion resistance, and thermal stability at high temperature. However, the properties of the films depend on the deposition technique and the growth parameters used [4, 8, 10, 13, 26, 67, 68, 69].

Among the papers published on nanocomposite films, one of the researchers who has contributed the most in the development of these materials have been Veprek and their co-workers [64, 76]. They have reported the formation of Ti▬Si▬N nanocomposites films with a hardness >40 GPa, which consist of a nanocrystalline phase (TiN) embedded on the matrix amorphous (Si3N4), produced by sputtering magnetron. They found that the decrease in the crystalline size and the formation of two phases (nanocomposite) improve the hardness films to hinder the multiplication and movement of dislocation and the growth of flaws. However, the hardness cannot improve in small nanocrystals about <10 nm, due to the fraction of the material in the increasing grain boundary generates a decrease in the hardness of the film by a grain boundary sliding (Hall-Petch relationship). Therefore, they suggest that an increase on the strength and hardness of the films can be archived with decreasing crystalline size only if grain boundary sliding can be blocked, and this behavior has been shown in different nanocomposite films. Also, they proposed one model to explain the formation of nanocomposite, explaining the phase segregation in Ti▬Si▬N because of spinodal decomposition during deposition. The spinodal decomposition process consists of the reduction of the solubility limit of the silicon on MeN lattice, generating the complete phase segregation of the SiNx around of the MeN crystals or an increase of the thickness of SiNx amorphous phases [48, 76]. This process is obtained with high temperature (>550°C) deposition and high nitrogen pressure [64].

The scientific and technologic importance of the development of the nanocomposite films with the chemical and physical performances that those has shown, it is evident if it is considered the great amount the publications that over this theme has been produced. In Table 1, it is summarized the most important works of nanocomposite thin films with silicon, as can see, the deposition method most used to deposit these films is sputtering technique. This technique allows to deposit metallic and insulator elements and compounds at low temperature, maintaining the composition of the target. In addition, the films deposited have shown to be of high quality (homogeneous and dense) and with good adhesion [3, 77, 78].

Nanocomposite filmDeposition technique
ZrSiNReactive magnetron cosputtering [17, 24, 28, 32, 33, 35, 44, 46, 48, 49, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 59, 63]
ZrSiNUnfiltered cathodic arc evaporation [21, 23]
CrAlSiNCathodic arc evaporation [66]
TiSiNChemical vapor deposition in a fluidized bed reactor at atmospheric pressure (AP/FBR-CVD) [70]
TiSiNA combination of DC and RF magnetron sputtering [41, 64]
TiSiNVacuum cathodic arc evaporation [58]
zAlSiNDC magnetron sputtering [19, 47, 71]
WSiNDC reactive unbalanced magnetron sputtering [49, 72]
TiAlSiCuNDC reactive magnetron sputtering [65]
ZrTiCrNbSiNVacuum arc evaporation [31]
CrZrSiNUnbalanced magnetron sputtering [37]
TiSiN-AgReactive magnetron cosputtering [25]
TaSiN and CrTaSiNReactive magnetron cosputtering [36, 50]
AlTiSiN and CrSiNCathode arc ion plating system [34, 73]
TiSiCNConventional magnetron sputtering and plasma enhanced magnetron sputtering (PEMS) [38, 74]
ZrSiNHybrid cathodic arc and chemical vapor process [56]
TiAlVSiNVacuum cathodic arc evaporation [58]
NbSiNUnbalanced magnetron sputtering [71]
CrSiNClosed field unbalanced magnetron sputtering [75]

Table 1.

Deposition techniques used for depositing nanocomposites thin films.

In this chapter, we discussed about of a new generation of nanocomposite films composed of two phases: a nanocrystalline embedded in an amorphous matrix, specifically of nanocomposites formed by zirconium nitride and silicon.

Therefore, the content of the chapter is divided into the following topics: Section 1 is dedicated to describe the more usually experimental deposition conditions of the films via magnetron sputtering techniques. In Section 2 of the chapter will present chemical analysis of their bulk through spectroscopy of the X-ray dispersive (EDX) and the chemical surface analysis of the films by means of spectroscopy of photoelectrons (XPS). Section 3 is dedicated to discuss the influence of silicon in the crystalline structure of the films. This analysis is done through X-ray diffraction (XRD) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM). Sections 4–6 will describe the electrical, optical, and mechanical behavior of the deposited films, respectively. Finally, Section 7 will present the corrosion resistance that gives the films on stainless steel substrates. This analysis will be done with potentiodynamic polarization curves (TAFEL).


2. Growth of thin films using DC reactive magnetron sputtering technique

Most publication about nanocomposite films has shown that the DC reactive magnetron cosputtering technique is the most used to deposit these materials (see Table 1), and they have reported that the formation and microstructure of the films are determined by the deposition parameters, such as applied power at the target, working pressure, bias voltage, and deposition temperature (see Table 2).

NanocompositeT a (C)TargetGasb (sccm)Powerc (W)Powerd (W)W.P e (Pa)Bias (V)
ZrSiN [17, 33, 39]RT
Zr (1)
Si (2)
Zr + Si pellets
Ar + N2
Zr: 120–150fSi: 0–250g4 × 10−1
2.7 × 10−1
TiSiN [41]200Ti (1)
Si (2)
Ar + N2Ti: 300–500fSi: 50–150g0.9–1.225
AlSiN [19, 47]400
Al-Si alloy
Ar + N27501NM
WSiN [49, 72]500WSi2 alloyAr + N2NM00.05–0.5100
TaSiN [50]500TaSi2 alloyAr + N2NM05 × 10−150
CrSiN [75]NMCr (1)
Si (2)
Ar + N2Cr: 20 cm−2NMNM100
TiAlSiCuN [65]RTTiAlSi alloy
Cu (2)
Ar + N2TiAlSi: 537.5Cu: 0–21.256 × 10−1NM
CrZrSiN [37]120CrZrSi segmentAr + N20.7 kg05 × 10−1NM
CrTaSiN [36]NMCr (1)
Ta (2)
Si (3)
Ar: 12
N2: 8
Cr: 150gTa: 100f
Si: 150f
4 × 10−1NM

Table 2.

Deposition parameters for different nanocomposite films obtained by reactive magnetron sputtering.


Gas type and flux.

First target power.

Second target power.

Working pressure

Direct current.

Radio frequency.

RT and NM are used to room temperature and when the variable is not mentioned, respectively.

In a sputtering process, the surface target is hitting with ions produced by an electric discharge, which form plasma. Normally, no reactive gas (Argon-Ar) is used to form the plasma. The interaction of these ions with the surface of the target causes the atoms on the surface to be ripped off through a moment exchange between ions and atoms of the target [4, 77, 79]. These sputtered atoms must transit from target to the substrate surface. During this displacement, the sputtered atoms experience many collisions with the particles that are in this region (sputtered atoms or Ar atoms or reactive atoms in the case of a reactive gas). These collisions change the velocity, direction, and the energy of the sputtered atoms. Therefore, the number of atoms that reach to the substrate surface will depend on the working pressure and the target-substrate distance. Moreover, the formation of the film is related with the condensing energy of the atoms (adatoms) on the surface of the substrate. Different works have found that amorphous films are formed when the adatoms have low energy of diffuse on the surface that does not allow that they may find low energy sites for the nucleation; while, a crystalline structure may be formed when the adatoms have a high surface mobility [8, 15, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88]. However, several works have found that when the growing films are exposed to bombardment of high-energy particle, the structure and properties of deposited films can be improved. This can be achieved by applying a negative voltage called bias to the surface substrate [18, 81, 89]. These high-energy particles can improve the diffusion of the adatoms on the substrate surface. Another way to improve adatoms mobility is by increasing the temperature of the substrate [15, 83, 85]. Therefore, in the deposition of thin films, it is important to be able to find the deposition parameters to determine and understand their physical and chemical properties.

Finally, the composition of the target is another parameter that will affect the characteristics of the films. It has been shown that the addition of silicon to transition metal nitride can affect the structure and properties of the films; due to that the addition of the silicon atoms can block the surface mobility of the adatoms of the metal or the transition metal nitride [28, 51, 57, 63, 90]. Therefore, as the amount of silicon is increased, the structure of the film is changed from a polycrystalline, nanocrystalline to amorphous.

Zirconium nitride with silicon films was deposited via DC reactive magnetron sputtering technique. Only one zirconium target was used with silicon pellets on the target surface to tailor the Si content in the Zr▬Si▬N films. The deposition parameters used are shown in Table 3. This sputtering method has been used for depositing different nanocomposite films such as: Ti▬Si▬N [91], W▬Si▬N [72], Zr▬Si▬N [92], Al▬Si▬N [93], and Nb▬Si▬N [71].

Deposition parametersValue
Target of sputterZr (99.99%)
Reactive gasNitrogen
Target diameter (cm)5
Distance target-substrate (cm)5
Base pressure (Pa)4 × 10−4
Working pressure (Pa)8 × 10−1
Temperature (°C)200
Voltage of bias (V)0
Applied power (W)140
Number of Si pellets0, 1, 2
Deposition time (s)3600

Table 3.

Deposition parameters used to deposit ZrN-Si films via DC reactive magnetron sputtering.

The Ar/N2 flow ratio was optimized to obtain ZrN films.

The zirconium nitride and silicon nitride were obtained by adding of nitrogen as reactive gas to the deposition chamber. Three series of samples were deposited with different numbers of silicon pellets (X), ZrN + XSi, where X = 0, 1, and 2. Finally, thicknesses of the deposited film were obtained from the cross-sectional scanning electronic microscope images, which are not included in this chapter. These images showed that the thicknesses of the films were 823±2, 955 ±8, and 1060 ±6 nm for ZrN, ZrN + 1Si, and ZrN + 2Si, respectively. The results of the chemical and structural characterization and the study of the functional properties are shown in the following subsections.


3. Chemical characterization by means of spectroscopy of the X-ray dispersive (EDX) and spectroscopy of photoelectrons (XPS)

In the sputtering technique, the elements of target are transferred to the substrate surface; this is verified with EDX analysis. Figure 1a shows the EDX spectrum for the ZrN + 2Si film.

Figure 1.

(a) EDX spectrum of ZrN + 2Si film with a 15 at.% of silicon and (b) the stoichiometry behavior of the ZrN▬Si deposited film at different silicon contents.

The EDX spectrum evidences the presence of zirconium, nitrogen, and silicon in the film. The elemental chemical composition of the deposited films is listed in Table 4. Figure 1b shows the variation of the zirconium content with the increase of the silicon content in the films. As silicon content increases, the Zr content decreases in the films due to the reduction of the effective sputtering area of the Zr target with the Si pellets. These results are similar to those published by other authors using the same sputtering configuration [59, 62, 92]. The EDX results also showed that with one Si pellet, the Si content was of 8 at.% and with two pellets was of 15 at.%.

Samples nameAtomic percentage (at.%)
Zirconium (Zr)Nitrogen (N)Silicon (Si)
ZrN + 1Si43.049.08.0
ZrN + 2Si36.049.015.0

Table 4.

The elemental chemical composition of the deposited films with different Si contents.

It has been found that when the solubility limit of Si in MeN lattice is exceeded, the Si atoms form a Si3N4 phase [94]. The formation of Si3N4 phase into MeN grain boundaries is typical for the Me▬Si▬N systems [17, 19, 25, 41, 71, 73]. Therefore, in our case, a chemical analysis for XPS of the ZrN▬Si deposited films with different Si contents was carried out to show the formation of the Si3N4 phase with the Si addition. Figure 2 shows the high-resolution XPS spectrum for the MeN films. The XPS results of Zr 3d peaks (Figure 2a) showed the presence of Zr▬N bond with a binding energy of 179.6 eV [95], and the Si 2p peaks (Figure 2b) showed the presence of Si-N bond to 100.8 eV [24] on the film surface. Additionally, the results showed the formation of zirconium oxide (ZrO2) and oxynitride of zirconium (ZrOxNy) that can be due to the presence of residual oxygen in the deposition chamber and to high possibility that has the zirconium to react with oxygen according to enthalpy of formation for ZrO2 that is −1101.3 kJ/mol [96].

Figure 2.

High-resolution XPS spectra for ZrN▬Si films with different silicon contents (a) Zr 3d and (b) Si 2p. The Si addition generated the formation of the Si3N4 phase in the films.

Various works have shown that the Si exists as solid solution in the ZrN lattice up to 3.0 at.%, but when the Si content increases, the formation of the Si3N4 phase is observed [17, 21]. Therefore, the EDX and XPS results show that with a Si content of 8 at.%, the solubility limit of Si in ZrN lattice is exceeded, generating the formation of Si3N4 into ZrN grain boundaries with the increased Si content, probability of the volume of the phase of Si3N4 is increased, and the phase of ZrN is decreased.


4. Structural characterization of the films through X-ray diffraction (XRD) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM)

With the addition of Si, it has been found that the microstructure of MeN films changes, and this change will depend on Si. Three types of microstructure have been observed in function of Si content: polycrystalline films with low Si content up to 3 at.%, nanocrystalline films with 3–10 at.% (nanocomposite: nanocrystalline and amorphous phase), and with a Si content above 10 at.%, the films are amorphous. These values on the silicon content are obtained for Ti▬Si▬N deposited films with different Si contents [97], but may change depending on MeN. In our case, the microstructure ZrN▬Si deposited films were characterized by XRD and TEM techniques. Figure 3 shows the XRD pattern of ZrN films with different Si contents deposited on the common glass substrate. Figure 3 exhibits diffraction peaks corresponding to fcc-ZrN (pdf. 01-078-1420) for the ZrN film without silicon (black color). The addition of Si, red and blue color, indicates that the diffraction peak of the ZrN (111) tends to broaden, while the ZrN (200) peak disappears as Si content increased. The broadening of the peak may be due to the formation of nanocrystals of cubic ZrN and tetragonal ZrO2, reported in the 2θposition 33.83° (pdf. 01-078-1420) and 30.27° (pdf. 00-050-1089), respectively. The crystalline size for ZrN films is <10 nm, which was determined for the Scherrer equation, and with the addition of Si, the crystalline size decreased until 5 nm. The XRD evidenced that Si addition generated a refinement of grain, which is related with a broadening of the diffraction peaks. With a high Si content (15 at.%), the film is amorphous.

Figure 3.

The XRD patterns of the ZrN▬Si films with different silicon contents.

To study the structure of the ZrN▬Si film with Si content of 8 at.% in more detail, transmission electron microscopy with selected area electron diffraction (SAED) was done. Figure 4 shows the SAED pattern of ZrN + 1Si film. It shows the presence of the (111), (200), and (220) diffraction rings, which indicate a fcc-ZrN structure, but the (111) diffraction ring is very broad, which is in very good agreement with the XRD results in the same d-spacing from 0.295 to 0.262 nm.

Figure 4.

(a) SAED pattern of ZrN + 1Si film. The diffraction ring, from 0.295 to 0.262 nm, is diffused possibly by the presence of various crystalline phases.

In addition, this ring broadens may be related with a mixture of phases, such as: ZrN, ZrO2 and Si3N4 as we can see in Figure 5. This figure shows the XRD pattern of ZrN + 1Si film and the crystallographic databases for ZrN (pdf. 01-078-1420), ZrO2 (pdf. 00-050-1089) and Si3N4 (pdf. 00-033-1160).

Figure 5.

The XRD pattern of the ZrN + 1Si film with crystallographic databases for ZrN (cubic), ZrO2 (tetragonal), and Si3N4 (hexagonal).

The different crystallographic phases present in the ZrN + 1Si film were analyzed by phase contrast images, Figure 6. The existence of nanocrystals and the Fast Fourier Transform (FTT) in Figure 6b confirms the presence of the diffraction rings observed in Figure 4.

Figure 6.

(a) HR-TEM image of ZrN + 1Si film and (b) SAED pattern of the image (a). The results allow to identify the presence of two different crystalline phases between 0.295 and 0.262 nm.

However, this figure allows separating two rings at the lowest d-spacing, which may confirm the hypothesis of a mixture of phases, as observed with XPS and XRD results. According to ZrN (01-078-1420) and ZrO2 (00-050-1089) pattern diffraction files, the interplanar distances in Figure 6b correspond to the ZrN face center cubic and ZrO2 tetragonal. Finally, the XPS, XRD, and HRTEM results show that with a Si content 0 at.%, the ZrN film is polycrystalline, with a 8 at.%, the film is nanocrystalline (ZrN and ZrO2 nanocrystalline), and possibly, with a Si3N4 amorphous matrix and with a 15 at.%, the Zr▬Si▬N film is amorphous.

Various published literatures have reported that electrical, optical, mechanical, and electrochemical properties of the nanocomposite films depend on their nanostructure. These works have found that with the addition of silicon to binary MeN, hardness, thermal stability, and corrosion resistance of the films can be improved. In order to illustrate the relationship between the microstructure and functional properties, measurements of resistivity, reflectance, transmittance, nanohardness, and potentiodynamic polarization were carried out.


5. Electrical properties

Electrical resistivity and sheet resistance measurements were obtained through the van der Pauw method for the Zr▬Si▬N deposited films, and their values were calculated and listed in Table 5. The results evidence that the electrical resistivity increases from 4.40 × 10−4 Ω cm (free Si) to 77.99 Ω cm (with 8 at.% Si) with the addition of silicon. This increase on the resistivity has been reported by other authors in different nanocomposites [54, 98]. They have found that depending on the chemical composition and electrical nature of the amorphous phase and nanocrystalline phase, the resistivity of Me▬Si▬N nanocomposite films can change. The electrical resistivity increases with increasing Si content, and the nanocomposite films have showed to have a structure of MeN nanocrystalline (conductor) surrounded of a SiNx amorphous phase (insulator). However, when the electrical resistivity behavior is independent to Si content, the resistivity is due to a direct percolation of the MeN1−x nanocrystalllines (conductors) separated by low degree of nitration of the SiNx grain boundary phase [98].

FilmSilicon (at.%)Resistivity (Ω cm)Sheet resistance (Ω/)
ZrN04.40 × 10−45.35
ZrN + 1Si877.99817006.68

Table 5.

Values of resistivity the ZrN with different Si contents.

The sample with a 15 at.% Si was not possible to measure the electrical resistivity due to high resistivity.

Therefore, the results obtained evidenced the formation of Zr▬Si▬N nanocomposite films with ZrN nanocrystallites embedded in the amorphous phase of SiNx, and the increase in the electrical resistivity with the Si addition is due to an increase in the thickness of SiNx layer that covers the nanocrystallites. The grain boundary scattering model is used for explaining the electrical conductivity in nanocomposite films [98].


6. Optical properties

The optical properties were investigated using a UV–Vis–NIR spectrophotometer. Reflectance and transmittance measurement were carried out from 300 to 2500 nm. The reflectance spectra of ZrN (black line) and ZrN + 1Si (red line) films are shown in Figure 7. In this figure, the typical reflectance of ZrN is observed [85]. It exhibits a maximum reflectance in the infrared region, which decreases as wavelengths decrease, and for wavelengths <500 nm, the reflectance slightly increases again. The ZrN films exhibit a similar Drude-like behavior [53, 85]. At longer wavelengths, the high electromagnetic absorption in this optical region is due to the conduction electrons and to the absorption at shorter wavelengths is due to the inter-band transitions of the bounded electron [85]. However, with the addition of silicon, the reflectance decreases drastically. At longer wavelengths, the film without silicon has a reflectance <80%, but the film with a Si content of 8 at.% has a reflectance <20%.

Figure 7.

Reflectance spectra of ZrN and ZrN + 1Si films from 300 to 2500 nm. As Si content increases, the transmittance optical of the films also increase.

Therefore, transmittance measurements were done to investigate the effect of silicon in the ZrN films. The transmittance spectra of ZrN + 1Si and ZrN + 2Si films are shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8.

Transmittance spectra of ZrN▬Si films with different Si contents and of the bare substrate (common glass). As the silicon content increases, the transmittance of the deposited films increases.

The transmittance spectra show that as silicon content increases, the transmittance also increases. With the addition of Si, new phases are generated according to previous results (TEM and XPS), such as: SiNx, ZrN, and ZrO2 phases. These phase mixtures change the optical behavior of the deposited films due to SiNx and ZrO2 that have been reported as optically transparent materials, while ZrN is an optically reflective material. Nowadays, there is not a theoretical model that may explain this behavior. However, the increase in the transmittance in films may be due to an increase in the volume of SiNx phase and a decrease of ZrN nanocrystalline phase with the increase of Si content.


7. Mechanical properties

The nanohardness (H) values as a function of Si content for the deposited films are shown in Figure 9 and Table 6. The H for the ZrN film is 29.55 ± 3.70 GPa, which decreases with the addition of silicon to 18.12 ± 2.65 and 15.92 ± 1.23 GPa at 8 and 15 at.% of Si, respectively. The value obtained for ZrN was similar to the reports from other authors [99, 100]. The decrease of the nanohardness with the Si addition is related with the increase amorphous phase of SiNx and decreasing of the crystalline size of ZrN [101].

Figure 9.

Nanohardness of the films as a function of silicon content. As Si content increases, the nanohardness of films decreases.

SamplesSilicon (at.%)Nanohardness (H)
ZrN029.55 ± 3.70
ZrN + 1Si818.12 ± 2.65
ZrN + 2Si1515.92 ± 1.23

Table 6.

Results from nanohardness tests.

The mechanical properties of nanocomposite films depend on the chemical composition of each one of the phases present, of the crystallite size, crystallographic orientation, lattice structure, and the thickness grain boundary phase [94, 101]. Different works have reported that the main mechanisms that allow to explain the hardness enhancement in the nanocomposites are three: (i) the dislocation-induced plastic deformation when the crystalline size is >10 nm, (ii) the nanostructure of materials when the crystalline size is 10 nm, and (iii) cohesive force between atoms when the crystalline size is <10 nm. However, when the thickness of amorphous phase is larger than the crystalline size, the nanohardness of the films decreases due to a deformation mechanism reported as grain boundary sliding [24, 94].

According to the XPS and electrical resistivity value results, the Si addition generated the formation of an amorphous phase of SiNx, which increases its thickness with the silicon content in the film. It has been reported that when the SiNx phase thickness is larger than the crystallite size of the ZrN phase, the nanohardness of the films decreases due to an increase of the volume fraction of the amorphous soft phase. The deformation mechanism, in this case, is grain boundary sliding [24].


8. Electrochemical properties

Potentiodynamic polarization curves of the 316l stainless steel (substrate) and deposited film with different Si contents were carried out for studying the Si effect in electrochemical properties of the films. They were tested in 3.5 wt.% NaCl solution, and the results are shown in Figure 10. For each curve, corrosion potential (Ecorr) and corrosion current density (Jcorr) were determined and are reported in Table 7. The results show that the deposited film with a Si content of 15 at.% has lower Jcorr than that of the uncoated SS 316 L substrate, indicating that with the Si addition or with the coating, the corrosion resistance increases.

Figure 10.

Potentiodynamic polarization curves for the films and substrate SS 316L.

SampleSilicon (at.%)Jcorr (nA/cm2)Ecorr (mV)
SS 316l07.13 ±9−198 ± 94
ZrN03.19 ± 7−146 ± 69
ZrN + 1Si84.83 ± 4−155 ± 47
ZrN + 2Si152.28 ± 9−150 ± 93

Table 7.

Results from potentiodynamic polarization curves, corrosion current density (Icorr), and corrosion potential (Ecorr) for each sample.

Several research groups have found that the addition of silicon to MeN films can improve the corrosion resistance due to the formation of nanocomposite films. The increase on the corrosion resistance could be attributed to the formation of a dense structure, which can block the paths of corrosion medium to the substrate. It has been demonstrated to nanocomposite films, such as: Ti▬Si▬N [102], Al▬Si▬N [103], Nb▬Si▬N [71], and W▬Si▬N and Zr▬Si▬N [104].


9. Conclusions

The addition of a third element as silicon affects the microstructure and functional properties of the transition metal nitride films, specifically those of zirconium nitride as observed in this chapter. Therefore, it is important has a control of the content of this element in the deposited film to understand and relate the microstructure and their properties.

With a silicon content of 8 at.% and with the deposition parameter used, the microstructure changed from a polycrystalline structure of fcc-ZrN (free silicon) to a mixture of nanocrystalline (ZrN) and amorphous (SiNx) phases, and with an increase in the Si content (15 at.%), the films were amorphous. However, these films showed the formation of two crystalline phases corresponding to zirconium nitride and zirconium oxide due to the base pressure used, which is not high enough to remove oxygen in the deposited chamber, and high enthalpy of formation for ZrO2.

These changes in the microstructure and the mixture of phases present in the films generated changes in the functional properties of zirconium nitride:

  • With the addition of silicon, the electrical resistivity increased various orders of magnitude comparison with the resistivity of ZrN. The electrical measurements allowed to determine that the films have a nanocomposite structure: nanocrystalline of ZrN conducting embedded in an amorphous SiNx insulating phases.

  • As silicon content increases, the optical response changed from a high reflectance in the infrared region (ZrN) to a high transmittance in the infrared region (ZrN▬Si coatings).

  • The nanohardness values decrease from 29.55 GPa (free silicon) to 15.92 GPa (15.0 at.% Si), due to an increase in the thickness of amorphous phase (SiNx) and a decrease in crystalline size (ZrN).

  • The potentiodynamic polarization curves showed that the coated substrate has higher corrosion resistance than the uncoated substrate due to a decrease in Icorr.



The authors are grateful to Professor Sandra Carvalho of the Minho University (Portugal) who performed the EDS and XPS measurements and the professors Sebastian Calderon and Paulo Ferreira of INL-International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory who performed HRTEM.

The authors are also grateful to the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL) for its financial support through the projects: “Recubrimientos Funcionales de (Zr, Ag, Si)N y (Zr, Cu, Si)N producidos por la técnica de Co-Sputtering Magnetrón reactive” and “Resistencia a la corrosión de recubrimientos de (Ag, Zr, Si)N y (Ti, Zr, Si)N producidos por Co-Sputtering Reactivo”.

© 2019 The Author(s). Licensee IntechOpen. This chapter is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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Henry S. Vanegas, Jose E. Alfonso and Jhon J. Olaya (April 9th 2019). Effect of Silicon Content in Functional Properties of Thin Films, Silicon Materials, Beddiaf Zaidi and Slimen Belghit, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.85435. Available from:

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