Flexible electronics have been developed for various applications, including paper-like electronic readers, rollable solar cells, electronic skins etc., with the merits of light weight, low cost, large area, and ruggedness. The systems may be subject to one-time or repeated large deformation during manufacturing and application. Although organic materials can be highly deformable, currently they are not able to fulfill every electronic function. Therefore flexible electronic devices are usually made as organic/inorganic hybrids, with diverse materials, complex architecture, and micro features. While the polymer substrates can recover from large deformations, thin films of electronic materials such as metals, silicon, oxides, and nitrides fracture at small strains, usually less than a few percent. Mechanics of hard films on soft substrates hence holds the key to build high-performance and highly reliable flex circuits.
This thesis investigates the deformability and failure mechanisms of thin films of metallic and ceramic materials supported by soft polymeric substrates through combined experimental, theoretical, and numerical methods. When subject to tension, micron-thick metal films with stable microstructure and strong interfacial adhesion to the substrate can be stretched beyond 50% without forming cracks. They eventually rupture by a ductile transgranular fracture which involves simultaneous necking and debonding. When metal films become nanometer-thick, intergranular fracture dominates the failure mode at elongations of only a few percent. Unannealed films show unstable microstructure at room temperature when subject to mechanical loading. In this case, films also rupture at small strains but by three concurrent mechanisms: deformation-induced grain growth, strain localization at large grains, and simultaneous debonding.
In contrast to metal films, ceramic films rupture by brittle mechanisms. The only way to prevent rupture of ceramic films is to reduce the strain they are subject to. Instead of using blanket films that fail at strains less than i%, we have patterned ceramic films into a lattice of periodic, isolated islands. Failure modes such as channel cracking, debonding, and wrinkling have been identified. Island behaviors are controlled by factors such as island size, thickness, and elastic mismatch with the substrate. A very soft interlayer between the islands and the underlying polyimide substrate reduces strains in the islands by orders of magnitude. Using this approach, substrates with arrays of 200 x 200 μm2 large SiNx islands were stretched beyond 20% without cracking or debonding the islands.
In summary, highly stretchable thin metal films and ceramic island arrays supported by polymer substrates have been achieved, along with mechanistic understandings of their deformation and failure mechanisms.