Granular Co-alloy + oxide thin films are currently used as the magnetic recording layer of perpendicular media in hard disk drives. The microstructure of these films is composed mainly of fine (7–10 nm) magnetic grains physically surrounded by oxide phases, which produce magnetic isolation of the grains. As a result, the magnetic switching volume is maintained as small as the physical grain size. Consequently, ample number of magnetic switching units can be obtained in one recording bit, in other words, higher signal to noise ratios (SNR) can be achieved. Therefore, a good understanding and control of the microstructure of the films is very important for high areal density magnetic recording media.
Interlayers and seedlayers play important roles in controlling the microstructure in terms of grain size, grain size distribution, oxide segregation and orientation dispersion of the crystallographic texture. Developing novel interlayers or seedlayers with smaller grain size is a key approach to produce smaller grain size in the recording layer. This study focuses on how to achieve smaller grain sizes in the recording layer through novel interlayer/seedlayer materials and processes. It also discusses the resulting microstructure in smaller-grain-size thin films.
Metal + oxide (e.g. Ru + SiO2) composite thin films were chosen as interlayer and seedlayer materials due to their unique segregated microstructure. Such layers can be grown epitaxially on top of fcc metal seedlayers with good orientation. It can also provide an epitaxial growth template for the subsequent magnetic layer (recording layer). The metal and oxide phases in the composite thin films are immiscible. The final microstructure of the interlayer depends on factors, such as, sputtering pressure, oxide species, oxide volume fraction, thickness, alloy composition, temperature etc. Moreover, it has been found that the microstructure of the composite thin films is affected mostly by two important factors—oxide volume fraction and sputtering pressure. The latter affects grain size and grain segregation through surface-diffusion modification and the self-shadowing effect. The composite Ru + oxide interlayers were found to have various microstructures under various sputtering conditions. Four characteristic microstructure zones can be identified as a function of oxide volume fraction and sputtering pressure—“percolated” (A), “maze” (T), “granular” (B) and “embedded” (C), based on which, a new structural zone model (SZM) is established for composite thin films. The granular microstructure of zone B is of particular interest for recording media application.
The grain size of interlayers is a strong function of pressure, oxide species and oxide volume fraction. Magnetic layers grown on top of these interlayers were found to be significantly affected by the interlayer microstructure. One-to-one grain epitaxial growth is very difficult to achieve when the grain size is too small. As a result, the magnetic properties of smaller grain size magnetic layers deteriorate due to poor growth. This presents a huge challenge to high areal density magnetic recording media.
A novel approach of Ar-ion etched Ru seedlayer, which can improve epitaxy between interlayer and magnetic layer is proposed. This method produces interlayer thin films of: (1) smaller grain size and higher nucleation density due to both a rougher seedlayer surface and an oxide addition in the interlayer; (2) good (00.2) texture due to the growth on top of the low pressure deposited Ru seedlayer; (3) dome-shape grain morphology due to the high pressure deposition. Therefore, a significant Ru grain size reduction with enhanced granular morphology and improved grain-to-grain epitaxy with the magnetic layer was achieved.
High resolution transmission electron microscopy (TEM) techniques, such as, electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS), energy-filtered TEM (EFTEM), energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) and mapping, and high angle annular dark field (HAADF) imaging have been utilized to investigate elemental distribution and grain morphology in composite magnetic thin films of different grain sizes. An oxygen-rich grain shell of about 0.5 ∼ 1 nm thickness is often observed for most media with different grain sizes. Reducing the grain size increases surface to volume ratio. With more surface area, smaller grains are more vulnerable to oxidization, resulting in even greater influence of the oxide on the magnetic properties of the grains.