ABSORPTION COEFFICIENT AND REFRACTIVE INDEX OF GaN, AIN AND AIGaN
J. F. MUTH**, J. D. BROWN*, M. A. L. JOHNSON*, ZHONGHAI YU*, R. M. KOLBAS*+, J.
W. COOK, JR*. and J. F. SCHETZINA*
Department of Physics, North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC 27695
** Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, North Carolina State University,
Raleigh NC 27695
Cite this article as : MRS Internet J. Nitride Semicond. Res. 4S1, G5.2 (1999)
The design of optoelectronic devices fabricated from III-nitride materials is aided by
knowledge of the refractive index and absorption coefficient of these materials. The optical
properties of GaN, AIN and A1GaN grown by MOVPE on sapphire substrates were investigated
by means of transmittance and reflectance measurements. Thin (less than 0.5 Vm) single crystal
films were employed to insure that transmission measurements could be obtained well above the
optical band gap. The influence of alloy broadening on the absorption edge was investigated by
using a series of AIGaN alloy samples with a range of Al compositions. The optical absorption
coefficient above the band gap was obtained for AIGaN having up to 38% A] composition. The
refractive index below the band gap was determined for the same series of samples. These
properties provide information critical to the optimal design of solar blind detectors or other
The ITI-nitrides, including GaN, InN, and AIN, have proven to be robust materials for the
development of blue/green LEDs and violet lasers lasers . The AIGaN alloys also hold great
promise for developing ultraviolet photodetectors . In photodetector applications, the wide
band gap of the nitrides aids to minimize the dark current, thereby increasing the detector
sensitivity. The transparency to visible light will reduce the need for the extensive external filters
that are required when detectors sensitive to the visible portion of the spectrum are employed.
Multilayered Bragg mirrors and filters fabricated from these materials also have applications for
lasers and photodetectors. Currently there has been only a limited amount of information
reported [3,4] about the fundamental optical properties of AlGaN alloys which makes design of
these devices difficult. The relative immaturity of this materials system also means that there
may be some variance in the properties of the materials produced by different workers. In this
paper, we report the refractive index and absorption coefficient for AlGaN thin film
compositions of up to 38 % obtained by means of reflectance/transmittance spectroscopy.
For light below the band gap of the semiconductor, the interference within the thin film
modulates both the reflection and transmission spectrum.
absorption coefficient causes the film to absorb any multiple reflections of the light. For these
materials, unless the film is less than -1 Ipm thick, there is seldom enough signal for commercial
spectrophotometers to obtain an accurate ratio measurement. Due to the short penetration depth
of the light above the band gap, reflection measurements become more dependent on the surface
Above the band gap, the high
Mat. Res. Soc. Symp. Proc. Vol. 537 © 1999 Materials Research Society
condition of the semiconductor, but have been used with great success to gather information
about band structure.
In the spectral region around the band gap the situation is complicated, for in addition to
going from a transparent to an absorbing Fabry-Perot cavity, the excitonic structure becomes
important. This is especially true in the case of nitride materials, where the binding energy of the
exciton is strong (> -20 meV). The three closely spaced valence bands lead to three strong
absorption features, the A, B, and C exciton. The selection rules also make the transmission and
reflection polarization dependent. The birefringence of the hexagonal material and the scattering
from the columnar grain structure found in most nitride materials further complicates matters. In
semiconductor alloys, fluctuations in composition broaden the exciton making the absorption
features less distinct. However, the continuum absorption of the exciton still influences the
absorption spectra, even when the excitonic features are no longer clearly visible. In general, all
nitride epitaxial films are also highly strained, with strain being dependent on substrate material
and on buffer layer.
In general, the traditional incident plane wave approach to thin film transmission and
reflection problems assumes that the films are of uniform thickness and have a flat surface
morphology. In practice, this is a challenge especially when the crystal grower would like to
have a reasonable growth rate and also has to dope the film for electrical properties.
In the case of thin films that have surface roughness, some of the light is scattered and
misses the detector. This lowers the experimental values of transmittance and reflectance with
the effect being more pronounced at shorter wavelengths. Even a small error in the experimental
values can lead to large errors in the determining the index of refraction . The scattering also
disrupts the phase of the plane wave leading to a loss of coherence in the thin film and a
dampening of the modulation of the transmission and reflection spectra. Swanepoel [6,7],
Szcxyrbowski , and Nowak  have considered the effects of surface roughness and thickness
variations on the optical spectrum of thin films and their models were incorporated into the
Another factor to consider in these thin film models is that the solution contains an index-
thickness product (nd). Thus, the index of refraction and the thin film thickness are intimately
related. In very thin films such as those used in this study, although the order number of the
interference peaks is known, only a few data points can be obtained for the Swanepoel procedure
for determining the thickness. With the film thickness known experimentally to - 7% from SEM
measurements, the index of refraction of the films was determined using the same method as
Ambacher . The absorption coefficient was found using the reflectance data and the
incoherent multilayer model by Wemple .
The exciton theory of Elliott [I I] was used to fit the absorption coefficient data to find
the optical band gap. Even with the exciton dissociated, it has a strong influence upon the
absorption spectra that non-excitonic models can not fit [12,13]. Since the individual excitons
could not be observed for alloy compositions above 5 % due to alloy broadening, for practicality
the three excitons were grouped into one parameter and assigned a single binding energy.
The GaN, AIGaN, and AIN epitaxial films measured in this work were prepared in a low
pressure, vertical flow, cold walled, high speed substrate rotation MOVPE reactor. This system
was designed and built at NCSU and is integrated into a multi-chamber nitride growth cluster
tool. The substrates for deposition were 2-inch diameter double-side-polished sapphire wafers.
Sample preparation was as previously described . Epitaxial films were deposited in a typical
two step process, with a low temperature buffer layer to nucleate growth .
temperature buffer layer was GaN for GaN growth, and AIN for AlGaN and AIN growth in order
to minimize the effects of the buffer layer optical properties on the measurements of the epitaxial
films. The epilayer growths of AlGaN and AIN films were performed at chamber pressures
ranging from 20 to 76 Torr with the trimethylaluminum injected separately from the
trimethylgallium source using hydrogen carrier gasses in both cases. Separate metallorganic
injection and reduced pressures allow for the independent control of composition and velocity of
the metallorganic species in order to limit parasitic reaction of the group III precursors .
With this technique, precise control of epilayer composition, uniformity, growth rate (0.5 - 1.5
[im/hr), and crystal quality was achieved.
The aluminum composition of the samples was estimated from the cathodoluminescence
(CL) spectra. The CL was measured using a JEOL JSM-6400 SEM with an Oxford instruments
mono-CL accessory. With this unit it is possible to obtain spectral CL scans from 180 nm to 900
nm, or to obtain monochromatic images within the available wavelength range. For these
samples, an accelerating voltage of 5-10 kV was used with a beam current of 10 nA. The CL
emission is from an interaction volume which extends through the sample into the substrate,
including the lower quality buffer layer material.
The surface quality of the films was evaluated using differential interference contrast
optical microscopy in order to anticipate any difficulties with light scattering from the surface.
Optical transmission intensity measurements were made from 200-3300 nm using a Cary
The reflectance measurements were taken from 250-900 nm with a
Perkin-Elmer Lambda 9 spectrophotometer with a normal incidence reflectance accessory and
calibrated uv-enhanced mirrors for use as references. The spectrophotometers were used in a
double beam mode, where the optical energy passing through the samples is ratioed with the
optical energy of a reference beam. No apertures were used in the reference and sample beams.
This was very beneficial for making measurements above the band gap since it is experimentally
difficult to obtain truly identical apertures and balance the instrument at very high absorbance.
The spectrophotometer slit width was kept constant in the visible and UV portion of the
spectrum to keep the spectral bandwidth constant. The spectral bandwidth was 0.1 nm to allow
for observation of sharp excitonic features or closely spaced interference fringes. The double-
side-polished substrates served to minimize scattering of the light.
The properties of the AIGa1_xN films analyzed in this study are summarized in Table 1.
Table 1: Thin AlGalxN films on double-polished sapphire.
CL Peak (eV)
Optical Band Gap (eV)
3 4 5 6
Figure 1 shows the CL of the samples which was used to assign the alloy composition of
the material using a bowing parameter of 1 eV . The thin nature of the films and the
relatively low accelerating voltage minimized the effect of self absorption upon the true peak
position  although the peak position was still red shifted in relation to the optical band gap
found by fitting the absorption data. The CL indicated that the material was of high quality,
although some deep level luminescence was observed.
The transmission data obtained for the sequence of thin samples is shown in Figure 2.
The AIN layer demonstrates the influence of surface morphology upon transmission
measurements. Due to scattering, the amplitude of the modulations is suppressed and the
transmission steadily decreases with shorter wavelengths.
AlGaN nitride films ranging in aluminum composition from 0.18 to 0.38 (films 2-5) show that
little scattering occurs and that the films are of uniform thickness. The thin GaN layer grown on
a GaN buffer layer shows some unusual behavior. In addition to the excitonic band edge which
produced a distinct room temperature excitonic feature indicative of high material quality,
another absorption slope just below the excitonic edge was visible. This was distinct from the
Urbach tail which normally occurs from phonon broadening of the exciton. Examination of the
film by differential interference contrast optical microscopy revealed the presence non-uniform
regions within the film. This increased the light scattering in the film and also influenced the
effective refractive index.
The transmission results for the
I I I I I I I
Figure 1. Cathodoluminescence for
Figure 2. Transmission data for
The index of refraction, shown in Figure 3, was computed by fitting the transmission data
as described in the introduction. The values obtained were about 3 percent lower than those
obtained by Ambacher . This is perhaps due to the influence of the buffer layer on the
effective index of the film.
The calculated absorption coefficients are plotted in Figure 4. The thin nature of the
films and smooth surface morphologies permitted extraction of the absorption coefficient well
above the band gap. In the binary compound, the GaN exciton is clearly visible, and just below
the excitonic band edge an absorption tail attributed to the buffer layer is visible. In the alloy
films, x=0.27, 0.34, and 0.38, the exciton is suppressed by alloy broadening. The clearly
recognizable AIN band edge is shown, but due to the excessive scattering it was not possible to
obtain accurate values for the absorption coefficient above 1.5 x 105 cm-1.
Figure 3. Below band gap refractive index
Figure 4. Absorption coefficient determined
from transmission measurements
We have investigated the optical properties of GaN, AlGaN alloys and AIN using scanning
electron microscopy cathodoluminescence along with reflectance and transmission spectroscopy.
The films used were less than 0.5 pm in thickness which permits direct calculation of the
absorption coefficient well above the band gap. The index of refraction below the band gap was
obtained by fitting the transmission spectra, and the optical band gap was obtained by fitting the
transmission data with Elliott's theory of absorption. The absorption coefficient and index of
refraction show reasonable agreement with those determined by other workers. These results
provide further information of importance toward the design optimization of optoelectronic
devices employing the lIl-nitrides.
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