Skip to main content

Reflection High-Energy Electron Diffraction (RHEED)

Key Takeaways

  • RHEED is unique because it analyzes only the surface layer of crystalline materials, providing vital information about epilayer thickness, growth rates, and surface roughness.

  • RHEED is particularly useful in molecular beam epitaxy (MBE), allowing real-time monitoring of thin-film growth, which is essential in semiconductor manufacturing for ensuring quality and uniformity.

  • RHEED's use of high-energy electrons at low angles enables a detailed examination of surface interactions, including elastic and inelastic scattering, which is crucial for understanding material properties.

Electron gun, crystal sample, detector screen, and interference pattern in a RHEED system

Electron gun, crystal sample, detector screen, and interference pattern in a RHEED system

Reflection high-energy electron diffraction (RHEED) is a method for analyzing the surface of crystalline materials. This technique is particularly useful for monitoring the growth of these materials, offering precise information about various aspects such as epilayer thickness, growth rates, surface roughness, and surface configuration. 

In RHEED systems, electrons shot from an electron gun hit a sample at low angles, enabling them to bypass the bulk material and reach the detector. This occurs as atoms on the sample's surface scatter incident electrons. The scattered electrons then undergo constructive interference at certain angles, dictated by the crystal structure, the spacing of atoms on the surface, and the wavelength of the incoming electrons. Certain electron waves then collide with the detector, forming unique diffraction patterns that reflect the surface features of the sample. RHEED systems are unique in that they exclusively collect data from the sample's surface layer. 

Key Elements in Reflection High-Energy Electron Diffraction (RHEED)



Electron Gun

The electron gun's resolution and test limits are crucial. Most RHEED systems use tungsten filaments as their primary electron source due to tungsten's low work function. In this setup, the tungsten filament serves as the cathode.

Electron Source

Electrons are drawn from the tungsten filament's tip towards a positively charged anode.

Beam Focusing

The RHEED setup typically involves one magnetic and one electric field to focus the electron beam. A negatively charged Wehnelt electrode between the cathode and anode creates a minor electric field, sharpening the focus of the electrons.

Magnetic Lens

After passing the anode, an adjustable magnetic lens focuses the electrons onto the sample surface. RHEED sources generally have a focal length of about 50 cm.

Beam Point Focus

The beam is concentrated to the smallest point at the detector rather than the sample surface to enhance the resolution of the diffraction pattern.


Requires a clean surface for accurate diffraction. Modern RHEED systems might include additional features to prepare or maintain the sample surface.

Larger samples, or those unsuitable for cleaving, might be coated with a passive oxide layer before analysis.

Diffraction Process

Electrons diffract off atoms at the sample's surface. A fraction of these diffracted electrons interfere constructively at specific angles due to the crystal structure.

Detector Screen

A photoluminescent screen that captures the diffraction pattern. The pattern is a function of the sample surface's atomic arrangement and the wavelength of electrons.

Interference and Pattern Formation

The constructive interference of electrons creates regular patterns on the detector, which are analyzed to infer surface structure and characteristics.

Vacuum Conditions

RHEED experiments are conducted under vacuum to mitigate electron diffraction by gas molecules, which can impair the electron gun's performance. An ultra-high vacuum environment is typically maintained to reduce electron scattering.

Electron Interactions on the Surface

When electrons encounter a sample surface, they can engage in various interaction processes. An electron might be absorbed or inelastically scattered, which can cause the excitation of a single atom's electron, leading to Auger-electrons or self-ionization. Auger electrons are emitted from an atom during a non-radiative process when an inner-shell vacancy is filled by an outer electron, transferring energy to another electron, which is ejected. Self-ionization occurs when an atom ionizes itself by transferring energy internally without external influence.

It can also cause the excitation of the collective electron gas, known as plasmon excitation, or the excitation of phonons. Alternatively, the scattering could be elastic, leading to the superposition of different electron waves, a process commonly referred to as electron diffraction. The predominant process among these depends on factors such as the sample surface, the angle of incidence, and the kinetic energy of the impinging electron. In elastic scattering, this energy dependence is demonstrated through a series of polar plots that depict the scattering amplitude and phase shifts at varying electron energies, ranging from 150 eV to 1500 eV.

In the Context of RHEED

In RHEED, electrons with kinetic energies ranging from 10 keV to 50 keV are emitted from an electron source or gun. These electrons are then directed onto the sample's surface at shallow, grazing angles of 1° to 5°. The purpose of using such small angles is twofold: firstly, to minimize the penetration depth into the sample, thereby maintaining the surface sensitivity of the information gathered. Secondly, to exploit the large forward scattering cross-section. The electrons scatter off the sample exit at similar grazing angles and are subsequently detected on a fluorescent screen. A notable aspect of this geometry is that it allows continuous access to the sample surface, which is crucial for deposition processes during analysis. As a result, RHEED has become an ideal technique for real-time monitoring of structural changes during growth as well as film thickness monitoring and process control.

The Process of Reflection High-Energy Electron Diffractions

In reflection high-energy electron diffractions, some of the incident electrons experience what is known as kinematic scattering. This process involves a single elastic scattering event at the crystal surface. On the other hand, dynamic scattering happens when electrons go through multiple diffraction events within the crystal, losing some energy in interactions with the sample. The data extracted from the kinematically diffracted electrons is non-qualitative in nature. These particular electrons are responsible for the formation of high-intensity spots or rings, which are characteristic features of RHEED patterns.

RHEED Compared to Other Characterization Techniques

Transmission electron microscopy, another common method for electron diffraction, primarily probes the bulk of a sample because of its system design. However, under certain conditions, it can also yield information about the sample's surface. 

Why Is RHEED Relevent for Semiconductors?

  • RHEED is especially compatible with molecular beam epitaxy (MBE), a method employed to create high-quality, ultra-pure thin films under ultra-high vacuum conditions. RHEED enables the observation of oscillation patterns during film deposition, with each complete oscillation indicating the formation of a single atomic layer. 
  • RHEED, in combination with total reflection angle X-ray spectroscopy (TRAXS), facilitates monitoring the chemical composition of crystals during the film growth process. This capability is crucial in semiconductor manufacturing, where the growth of thin films is a fundamental procedure. The real-time feedback provided by RHEED ensures precise control over this growth, leading to uniformity and high quality in the resulting semiconductor devices.
  • As semiconductors evolve towards smaller and more intricate designs, the impact of surface irregularities on the performance of the final products becomes increasingly significant. RHEED aids in a comprehensive understanding and adjustment of surface properties, which is pivotal for developing sophisticated semiconductor devices. 

For professionals seeking to leverage the benefits of RHEED in their packaged semiconductor devices, Cadence's Allegro X Advanced Package Designer offers the perfect solution. With its advanced capabilities, users can achieve unparalleled accuracy and efficiency in their semiconductor design and production processes. Explore Allegro X Advanced Package Designer's features and see how it can enhance your semiconductor fabrication workflow. 

Leading electronics providers rely on Cadence products to optimize power, space, and energy needs for a wide variety of market applications. To learn more about our innovative solutions, talk to our team of experts or subscribe to our YouTube channel.