Silicon nitride

Silicon nitride

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Silicon nitride is a chemical compound of silicon
Silicon is a chemical element with the symbol Si and atomic number 14. A tetravalent metalloid, it is less reactive than its chemical analog carbon, the nonmetal directly above it in the periodic table, but more reactive than germanium, the metalloid directly below it in the table...

 and nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

. If powdered silicon is heated between 1300° and 1400°C in an atmosphere of nitrogen, trisilicon tetranitride, Si3N4, is formed. The silicon sample weight increases progressively due to the chemical combination of silicon and nitrogen. Without an iron catalyst, the reaction is complete after several hours (~7), when no further weight increase due to nitrogen absorption (per gram of silicon) is detected. In addition to Si3N4, several other silicon nitride phases (with chemical formulas corresponding to varying degrees of nitridation/Si oxidation state) have been reported in the literature, for example, the gaseous disilicon mononitride (Si2N); silicon mononitride (SiN), and silicon sesquinitride (Si2N3), each of which are stoichiometric phases. As with other refractories, the products obtained in these high-temperature syntheses depends on the reaction conditions (e.g. time, temperature, and starting materials including the reactants and container materials), as well as the mode of purification. However, the existence of the sesquinitride has since come into question

The Si3N4 phase is the most chemically inert (being decomposed by dilute HF and hot H2SO4). It is also the thermodynamically stablest of the silicon nitrides. Hence, Si3N4 is the most commercially important of the silicon nitrides and is generally understood as what is being referred to where the term "silicon nitride" is used.

Silicon nitride (i.e. Si3N4) is a hard ceramic
A ceramic is an inorganic, nonmetallic solid prepared by the action of heat and subsequent cooling. Ceramic materials may have a crystalline or partly crystalline structure, or may be amorphous...

 having high strength over a broad temperature range, moderate thermal conductivity
Thermal conductivity
In physics, thermal conductivity, k, is the property of a material's ability to conduct heat. It appears primarily in Fourier's Law for heat conduction....

, low coefficient of thermal expansion, moderately high elastic modulus
Elastic modulus
An elastic modulus, or modulus of elasticity, is the mathematical description of an object or substance's tendency to be deformed elastically when a force is applied to it...

, and unusually high fracture toughness
Fracture toughness
In materials science, fracture toughness is a property which describes the ability of a material containing a crack to resist fracture, and is one of the most important properties of any material for virtually all design applications. The fracture toughness of a material is determined from the...

 for a ceramic. This combination of
properties leads to excellent thermal shock resistance, ability to withstand high structural
loads to high temperature, and superior wear resistance. Silicon nitride is mostly used in high-endurance and high-temperature applications, such as gas turbines, car engine parts, bearings
Bearing (mechanical)
A bearing is a device to allow constrained relative motion between two or more parts, typically rotation or linear movement. Bearings may be classified broadly according to the motions they allow and according to their principle of operation as well as by the directions of applied loads they can...

 and metal working and cutting tools. Silicon nitride bearings are used in the main engines of the NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation's civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research...

's Space shuttle
Space Shuttle
The Space Shuttle was a manned orbital rocket and spacecraft system operated by NASA on 135 missions from 1981 to 2011. The system combined rocket launch, orbital spacecraft, and re-entry spaceplane with modular add-ons...

s. Thin silicon nitride films are a popular insulating layer in silicon-based electronics and silicon nitride cantilevers are the sensing parts of atomic force microscope
Atomic force microscope
Atomic force microscopy or scanning force microscopy is a very high-resolution type of scanning probe microscopy, with demonstrated resolution on the order of fractions of a nanometer, more than 1000 times better than the optical diffraction limit...



The first reported preparation was in 1857 by Henri Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville
Henri Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville
Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville was a French chemist.He was born in the island of St Thomas, West Indies, where his father was French consul. Together with his elder brother Charles he was educated in Paris at the College Rollin...

 and Friedrich Wöhler
Friedrich Wöhler
Friedrich Wöhler was a German chemist, best known for his synthesis of urea, but also the first to isolate several chemical elements.-Biography:He was born in Eschersheim, which belonged to aau...

. In their method, silicon was heated in a crucible placed inside another crucible packed with carbon to reduce permeation of oxygen to the inner crucible. They reported a product they termed silicon nitride but without specifying its chemical composition. Paul Schuetzenberger first reported a product with the composition of the tetranitride, Si3N4, in 1879 that was obtained by heating silicon with brasque (a paste made by mixing charcoal, coal, or coke with clay which is then used to line crucibles) in a blast furnace. In 1910, Ludwig Weiss and Theodor Engelhardt heated silicon under pure nitrogen to produce Si3N4. E. Friederich and L. Sittig made Si3N4 in 1925 via carbothermal reduction under nitrogen, that is, by heating silica, carbon, and nitrogen at 1250°-1300°C.

Silicon nitride remained merely a chemical curiosity for decades before it was used in commercial applications. From 1948 to 1952, the Carborundum Company, Niagara Falls, New York, applied for several patent
A patent is a form of intellectual property. It consists of a set of exclusive rights granted by a sovereign state to an inventor or their assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for the public disclosure of an invention....

s on the manufacture and application of silicon nitride. By 1958 Haynes (Union Carbide) silicon nitride was in commercial production for thermocouple
A thermocouple is a device consisting of two different conductors that produce a voltage proportional to a temperature difference between either end of the pair of conductors. Thermocouples are a widely used type of temperature sensor for measurement and control and can also be used to convert a...

 tubes, rocket nozzles, and boats and crucible
A crucible is a container used for metal, glass, and pigment production as well as a number of modern laboratory processes, which can withstand temperatures high enough to melt or otherwise alter its contents...

s for melting metals. British work on silicon nitride, started in 1953, was aimed at high-temperature parts of gas turbine
Gas turbine
A gas turbine, also called a combustion turbine, is a type of internal combustion engine. It has an upstream rotating compressor coupled to a downstream turbine, and a combustion chamber in-between....

s and resulted in the development of reaction-bonded silicon nitride and hot-pressed silicon nitride. In 1971, the Advanced Research Project Agency of the US Department of Defense
United States Department of Defense
The United States Department of Defense is the U.S...

 placed a US$17 million contract with Ford and Westinghouse
Westinghouse Electric (1886)
Westinghouse Electric was an American manufacturing company. It was founded in 1886 as Westinghouse Electric Company and later renamed Westinghouse Electric Corporation by George Westinghouse. The company purchased CBS in 1995 and became CBS Corporation in 1997...

 for two ceramic gas turbines.

Even though the properties of silicon nitride were well known, its natural occurrence was discovered only in the 1990s, as tiny inclusions (about 2×0.5 microns
A micrometer , is by definition 1×10-6 of a meter .In plain English, it means one-millionth of a meter . Its unit symbol in the International System of Units is μm...

 in size) in meteorite
A meteorite is a natural object originating in outer space that survives impact with the Earth's surface. Meteorites can be big or small. Most meteorites derive from small astronomical objects called meteoroids, but they are also sometimes produced by impacts of asteroids...

s. The mineral was named nierite after a pioneer of mass spectrometry
Mass spectrometry
Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique that measures the mass-to-charge ratio of charged particles.It is used for determining masses of particles, for determining the elemental composition of a sample or molecule, and for elucidating the chemical structures of molecules, such as peptides and...

 Alfred O. C. Nier. This mineral might have been detected earlier, again exclusively in meteorites, by Soviet geologists.


Silicon nitride can be obtained by direct reaction between silicon
Silicon is a chemical element with the symbol Si and atomic number 14. A tetravalent metalloid, it is less reactive than its chemical analog carbon, the nonmetal directly above it in the periodic table, but more reactive than germanium, the metalloid directly below it in the table...

 and nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

 at temperatures between 1300 and 1400 °C:
3 Si(s) + 2 N2(g) → Si3N4(s)

by diimide
Diazene, also called diimine or diimide, is a compound having the formula 2. It exists as two geometric isomers, E and Z. Diazene is also the parent member of the entire class of azo compounds with the formula 2, where R is an organyl group...

SiCl4(l) + 6 NH3(g) → Si(NH)2(s) + 4 NH4Cl(s)    at 0 °C
3 Si(NH)2(s) → Si3N4(s) + N2(g) + 3 H2(g)    at 1000 °C

or by carbothermal reduction in nitrogen atmosphere at 1400–1450 °C:
3 SiO2(s) + 6 C(s) + 2 N2(g) → Si3N4(s) + 6 CO(g)

The nitridation of silicon powder was developed in the 1950s, following the "rediscovery" of silicon nitride and was the first
large-scale method for powder production. However, use of low-purity raw silicon caused contamination of silicon nitride by silicate
A silicate is a compound containing a silicon bearing anion. The great majority of silicates are oxides, but hexafluorosilicate and other anions are also included. This article focuses mainly on the Si-O anions. Silicates comprise the majority of the earth's crust, as well as the other...

s and iron
Iron is a chemical element with the symbol Fe and atomic number 26. It is a metal in the first transition series. It is the most common element forming the planet Earth as a whole, forming much of Earth's outer and inner core. It is the fourth most common element in the Earth's crust...

. The diimide decomposition results in amorphous silicon nitride, which needs further annealing under nitrogen at 1400–1500 °C to convert it to crystalline powder; this is now the second-most important route for commercial production. The carbothermal reduction was the earliest used method for silicon nitride production and is now considered as the most-cost-effective industrial route to high-purity silicon nitride powder.

Electronic-grade silicon nitride films are formed using chemical vapor deposition
Chemical vapor deposition
Chemical vapor deposition is a chemical process used to produce high-purity, high-performance solid materials. The process is often used in the semiconductor industry to produce thin films. In a typical CVD process, the wafer is exposed to one or more volatile precursors, which react and/or...

 (CVD), or one of its variants, such as plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition
Plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition
Plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition is a process used to deposit thin films from a gas state to a solid state on a substrate. Chemical reactions are involved in the process, which occur after creation of a plasma of the reacting gases...

3 SiH4(g) + 4 NH3(g) → Si3N4(s) + 12 H2(g)
3 SiCl4(g) + 4 NH3(g) → Si3N4(s) + 12 HCl(g)
3 SiCl2H2(g) + 4 NH3(g) → Si3N4(s) + 6 HCl(g) + 6 H2(g)

For deposition of silicon nitride layers on semiconductor (usually silicon) substrates, two methods are used:
  1. Low pressure chemical vapor deposition (LPCVD) technology, which works at rather high temperature and is done either in a vertical or in a horizontal tube furnace, or
  2. Plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD) technology, which works at rather low temperature and vacuum conditions.

The lattice constant
Lattice constant
The lattice constant [or lattice parameter] refers to the constant distance between unit cells in a crystal lattice. Lattices in three dimensions generally have three lattice constants, referred to as a, b, and c. However, in the special case of cubic crystal structures, all of the constants are...

s of silicon nitride and silicon are different. Therefore tension or stress can occur, depending on the deposition process. Especially when using PECVD technology this tension can be reduced by adjusting deposition parameters.

Silicon nitride nanowires can also be produced by sol-gel method using carbothermal reduction
Redox reactions describe all chemical reactions in which atoms have their oxidation state changed....

by nitridation of silica gel
Silica gel
Silica gel is a granular, vitreous, porous form of silica made synthetically from sodium silicate. Despite its name, silica gel is a solid. It is a naturally occurring mineral that is purified and processed into either granular or beaded form...

, which contains ultrafine carbon particles. The particles can be produced by decomposition of dextrose in the temperature range 1200–1350 °C. The possible synthesis reactions are:
SiO2(s) + C(s) → SiO(g) + CO(g)    and
3 SiO(g) + 2 N2(g) + 3 CO(g) → Si3N4(s) + 3 CO2(g)    or
3 SiO(g) + 2 N2(g) + 3 C(s) → Si3N4(s) + 3 CO(g).


Silicon nitride is difficult to produce as a bulk material—it cannot be heated over 1850 °C, which is well below its melting point
Melting point
The melting point of a solid is the temperature at which it changes state from solid to liquid. At the melting point the solid and liquid phase exist in equilibrium. The melting point of a substance depends on pressure and is usually specified at standard atmospheric pressure...

, due to dissociation to silicon and nitrogen. Therefore, application of conventional hot press sintering
Hot isostatic pressing
Hot isostatic pressing is a manufacturing process used to reduce the porosity of metals and influence the density of many ceramic materials. This improves the material's mechanical properties and workability....

 techniques is problematic. Bonding of silicon nitride powders can be achieved at lower temperatures through adding additional materials (sintering aids or "binders") which commonly induce a degree of liquid phase sintering. A cleaner alternative is to use spark plasma sintering
Spark plasma sintering
Spark plasma sintering , also known as field assisted sintering technique or pulsed electric current sintering , is a sintering technique....

 where heating is conducted very rapidly (seconds) by passing pulses of electric current through the compacted powder. Dense silicon nitride compacts have been obtained by this techniques at temperatures 1500–1700 °C.

Crystal structure and properties

There exist three crystallographic structures of silicon nitride (Si3N4), designated as α, β and γ phases. The α and β phases
Phase (matter)
In the physical sciences, a phase is a region of space , throughout which all physical properties of a material are essentially uniform. Examples of physical properties include density, index of refraction, and chemical composition...

 are the most common forms of Si3N4, and can be produced under normal pressure condition. The γ phase can only be synthesized under high pressures and temperatures and has a hardness of 35 GPa.

The α- and β-Si3N4 have trigonal (Pearson symbol
Pearson symbol
The Pearson symbol, or Pearson notation, is used in crystallography as a means of describing a crystal structure, and was originated by W.B. Pearson. The symbol is made up of two letters followed by a number. For example:* Diamond structure, cF8...

 hP28, space group
Space group
In mathematics and geometry, a space group is a symmetry group, usually for three dimensions, that divides space into discrete repeatable domains.In three dimensions, there are 219 unique types, or counted as 230 if chiral copies are considered distinct...

 P31c, No. 159) and hexagonal
Hexagonal crystal system
In crystallography, the hexagonal crystal system is one of the 7 crystal systems, the hexagonal lattice system is one of the 7 lattice systems, and the hexagonal crystal family is one of the 6 crystal families...

 (hP14, P63, No. 173) structures, respectively, which are built up by corner-sharing SiN4 tetrahedra
In geometry, a tetrahedron is a polyhedron composed of four triangular faces, three of which meet at each vertex. A regular tetrahedron is one in which the four triangles are regular, or "equilateral", and is one of the Platonic solids...

. They can be regarded as consisting of layers of silicon and nitrogen atoms in the sequence ABAB... or ABCDABCD... in β-Si3N4 and α-Si3N4, respectively. The AB layer is the same in the α and β phases, and the CD layer in the α phase is related to AB by a c-glide plane. The Si3N4 tetrahedra in β-Si3N4 are interconnected in such a way that tunnels are formed, running parallel with the c axis of the unit cell. Due to the c-glide plane that relates AB to CD, the α structure contains cavities instead of tunnels. The cubic γ-Si3N4 is often designated as c modification in the literature, in analogy with the cubic modification of boron nitride
Boron nitride
Boron nitride is a chemical compound with chemical formula BN, consisting of equal numbers of boron and nitrogen atoms. BN is isoelectronic to a similarly structured carbon lattice and thus exists in various crystalline forms...

 (c-BN). It has a spinel
Spinel is the magnesium aluminium member of the larger spinel group of minerals. It has the formula MgAl2O4. Balas ruby is an old name for a rose-tinted variety.-Spinel group:...

-type structure in which two silicon atoms each coordinate six nitrogen atoms octahedrally, and one silicon atom coordinates four nitrogen atoms tetrahedrally.

The longer stacking sequence results in the α-phase having higher hardness than the β-phase. However, the α-phase is chemically unstable compared with the β-phase. At high temperatures when a liquid phase is present, the α-phase always transforms into the β-phase. Therefore, β-Si3N4 is the major form used in Si3N4 ceramics.


In general, the main issue with applications of silicon nitride has not been technical performance, but cost. As the cost has come down, the number of production applications is accelerating.

Automobile industry

One of the major applications of sintered silicon nitride is in automobile industry as a material for engine parts. Those include, in Diesel engine
Diesel engine
A diesel engine is an internal combustion engine that uses the heat of compression to initiate ignition to burn the fuel, which is injected into the combustion chamber...

s, glowplug
A glowplug is a heating device used to aid starting diesel engines.-Purpose:Diesel engines, unlike petrol engines, do not use spark plugs to induce combustion...

s for faster start-up; precombustion chambers (swirl chambers) for lower emissions, faster start-up and lower noise; turbocharger
A turbocharger, or turbo , from the Greek "τύρβη" is a centrifugal compressor powered by a turbine that is driven by an engine's exhaust gases. Its benefit lies with the compressor increasing the mass of air entering the engine , thereby resulting in greater performance...

 for reduced engine lag and emissions. In spark-ignition engines, silicon nitride is used for rocker arm
Rocker arm
Generally referred to within the internal combustion engine of automotive, marine, motorcycle and reciprocating aviation engines, the rocker arm is a reciprocating lever that conveys radial movement from the cam lobe into linear movement at the poppet valve to open it...

 pads for lower wear
In materials science, wear is erosion or sideways displacement of material from its "derivative" and original position on a solid surface performed by the action of another surface....

, turbocharger for lower inertia and less engine lag, and in exhaust gas control valves
Internal combustion engine
The internal combustion engine is an engine in which the combustion of a fuel occurs with an oxidizer in a combustion chamber. In an internal combustion engine, the expansion of the high-temperature and high -pressure gases produced by combustion apply direct force to some component of the engine...

 for increased acceleration. As examples of production levels, there is an estimated more than 300,000 sintered silicon nitride turbochargers made annually.


Silicon nitride bearings are both full ceramic bearings and ceramic hybrid bearings with balls in ceramics and races in steel.
Silicon nitride ceramic
A ceramic is an inorganic, nonmetallic solid prepared by the action of heat and subsequent cooling. Ceramic materials may have a crystalline or partly crystalline structure, or may be amorphous...

s have good shock
Shock (mechanics)
A mechanical or physical shock is a sudden acceleration or deceleration caused, for example, by impact, drop, kick, earthquake, or explosion. Shock is a transient physical excitation....

 resistance compared to other ceramics. Therefore, ball bearings made of silicon nitride ceramic are used in performance bearings
Bearing (mechanical)
A bearing is a device to allow constrained relative motion between two or more parts, typically rotation or linear movement. Bearings may be classified broadly according to the motions they allow and according to their principle of operation as well as by the directions of applied loads they can...

. A representative example is use of silicon nitride bearings in the main engines of the NASA's Space Shuttle
Space Shuttle
The Space Shuttle was a manned orbital rocket and spacecraft system operated by NASA on 135 missions from 1981 to 2011. The system combined rocket launch, orbital spacecraft, and re-entry spaceplane with modular add-ons...


Silicon nitride ball bearings are harder than metal which reduces contact with the bearing track. This results in 80% less friction, 3 to 10 times longer lifetime, 80% higher speed, 60% less weight, the ability to operate with lubrication starvation, higher corrosion resistance and higher operation temperature, as compared to traditional metal bearings. Silicon nitride balls weigh 79% less than tungsten carbide balls. Silicon nitride ball bearings can be found in high end automotive bearings, industrial bearings, wind turbine
Wind turbine
A wind turbine is a device that converts kinetic energy from the wind into mechanical energy. If the mechanical energy is used to produce electricity, the device may be called a wind generator or wind charger. If the mechanical energy is used to drive machinery, such as for grinding grain or...

s, motorsports, bicycles, rollerblades and skateboard
A skateboard is typically a specially designed plywood board combined with a polyurethane coating used for making smoother slides and stronger durability, used primarily for the activity of skateboarding. The first skateboards to reach public notice came out of the surfing craze of the early 1960s,...

s. Silicon nitride bearings are especially useful in applications where corrosion, electric or magnetic fields prohibit the use of metals. For example, in tidal flow meters, where seawater attack is a problem, or in electric field seekers.

Si3N4 was first demonstrated as a superior bearing in 1972 but did not reach production until nearly 1990 because of challenges associated with reducing the cost.
Since 1990, the cost has been reduced substantially as production volume has increased. Although Si3N4 bearings are still 2–5 times more expensive than the best steel bearings, their superior performance and life are justifying rapid adoption. Around 15–20 million Si3N4 bearing balls were produced in the U.S. in 1996 for machine tools and many other applications. Growth is estimated at 40% per year, but could be even higher if ceramic bearings are selected for consumer applications such as in-line skates and computer disk drives.

High-temperature material

Silicon nitride has long been used in high-temperature applications. In particular, it was identified as one of the few monolithic ceramic materials capable of surviving the severe thermal shock and thermal gradients generated in hydrogen/oxygen rocket engines. To demonstrate this capability in a complex configuration, NASA scientists used advanced rapid prototyping technology to fabricate a one-inch-diameter, single-piece combustion chamber/nozzle (thruster) component. The thruster was hot-fire tested with hydrogen/oxygen propellant and survived five cycles including a 5-minute cycle to a 1320 °C material temperature.

Metal working and cutting tools

The first major application of Si3N4 was abrasive and cutting tools.
Grinding, milling, and boring of metals constitute the major cost of manufacturing. A study in the early 1970s estimated that there were 2,692,000 metal-cutting machine tools in the United States with an annual operating cost of $64 billion.

Bulk, monolithic silicon nitride is used as a material for cutting tool
Cutting tool
In the context of machining, a cutting tool is any tool that is used to remove material from the workpiece by means of shear deformation. Cutting may be accomplished by single-point or multipoint tools. Single-point tools are used in turning, shaping, plaining and similar operations, and remove...

s, due to its hardness, thermal stability, and resistance to wear
In materials science, wear is erosion or sideways displacement of material from its "derivative" and original position on a solid surface performed by the action of another surface....

. It is especially recommended for high speed machining
Conventional machining is a form of subtractive manufacturing, in which a collection of material-working processes utilizing power-driven machine tools, such as saws, lathes, milling machines, and drill presses, are used with a sharp cutting tool to physical remove material to achieve a desired...

 of cast iron
Cast iron
Cast iron is derived from pig iron, and while it usually refers to gray iron, it also identifies a large group of ferrous alloys which solidify with a eutectic. The color of a fractured surface can be used to identify an alloy. White cast iron is named after its white surface when fractured, due...

. Hot hardness, fracture toughness and thermal shock resistance mean that sintered silicon nitride can cut cast iron, hard steel and nickel based alloys with surface speeds up to 25 times quicker than those obtained with conventional materials such as tungsten carbide. The use of Si3N4 cutting tools has had a dramatic effect on manufacturing output. For example, face milling of gray cast iron with silicon nitride inserts doubled the cutting speed, increased tool life from one part to six parts per edge, and reduced the average cost of inserts by 50%, as compared to traditional tungsten carbide
Tungsten carbide
Tungsten carbide is an inorganic chemical compound containing equal parts of tungsten and carbon atoms. Colloquially, tungsten carbide is often simply called carbide. In its most basic form, it is a fine gray powder, but it can be pressed and formed into shapes for use in industrial machinery,...



Silicon nitride is often used as an insulator
Electrical insulation
thumb|250px|[[Coaxial Cable]] with dielectric insulator supporting a central coreThis article refers to electrical insulation. For insulation of heat, see Thermal insulation...

 and chemical barrier in manufacturing integrated circuits, to electrically isolate different structures or as an etch
Etching (microfabrication)
Etching is used in microfabrication to chemically remove layers from the surface of a wafer during manufacturing. Etching is a critically important process module, and every wafer undergoes many etching steps before it is complete....

 mask in bulk micromachining
Bulk micromachining
Bulk micromachining is a process used to produce micromachinery or microelectromechanical systems .Unlike surface micromachining, which uses a succession of thin film deposition and selective etching, bulk micromachining defines structures by selectively etching inside a substrate...

. As a passivation layer for microchips, it is superior to silicon dioxide
Silicon dioxide
The chemical compound silicon dioxide, also known as silica , is an oxide of silicon with the chemical formula '. It has been known for its hardness since antiquity...

, as it is a significantly better diffusion barrier
Diffusion barrier
A diffusion barrier is a thin layer of metal usually placed between two other metals. It is done to act as a barrier to protect either one of the metals from corrupting the other....

 against water molecules and sodium
Sodium is a chemical element with the symbol Na and atomic number 11. It is a soft, silvery-white, highly reactive metal and is a member of the alkali metals; its only stable isotope is 23Na. It is an abundant element that exists in numerous minerals, most commonly as sodium chloride...

 ions, two major sources of corrosion and instability in microelectronics. It is also used as a dielectric
A dielectric is an electrical insulator that can be polarized by an applied electric field. When a dielectric is placed in an electric field, electric charges do not flow through the material, as in a conductor, but only slightly shift from their average equilibrium positions causing dielectric...

 between polysilicon layers in capacitor
A capacitor is a passive two-terminal electrical component used to store energy in an electric field. The forms of practical capacitors vary widely, but all contain at least two electrical conductors separated by a dielectric ; for example, one common construction consists of metal foils separated...

s in analog chips.

Silicon nitride deposited by LPCVD contains up to 8% hydrogen. It also experiences strong tensile stress
Stress (physics)
In continuum mechanics, stress is a measure of the internal forces acting within a deformable body. Quantitatively, it is a measure of the average force per unit area of a surface within the body on which internal forces act. These internal forces are a reaction to external forces applied on the body...

, which may crack films thicker than 200 nm. However, it has higher resistivity
Electrical resistivity is a measure of how strongly a material opposes the flow of electric current. A low resistivity indicates a material that readily allows the movement of electric charge. The SI unit of electrical resistivity is the ohm metre...

 and dielectric strength than most insulators commonly available in microfabrication (1016 Ω
The ohm is the SI unit of electrical resistance, named after German physicist Georg Simon Ohm.- Definition :The ohm is defined as a resistance between two points of a conductor when a constant potential difference of 1 volt, applied to these points, produces in the conductor a current of 1 ampere,...

·cm and 10 MV/cm, respectively).

Not only silicon nitride, but also various ternary compounds of silicon, nitrogen and hydrogen (SiNxHy) are used insulating layers. They are plasma deposited using the following reactions:
2 SiH4(g) + N2(g) → 2 SiNH(s) + 3 H2(g)
SiH4(g) + NH3(g) → SiNH(s) + 3 H2(g)

These SiNH films have much less tensile stress, but worse electrical properties (resistivity 106 to 1015 Ω·cm, and dielectric strength 1 to 5 MV/cm).

Silicon nitride is also used in xerographic process
Xerography is a dry photocopying technique invented by Chester Carlson in 1938, for which he was awarded on October 6, 1942. Carlson originally called his invention electrophotography...

 as one of the layer of the photo drum. Silicon nitride is also used as an ignition source for domestic gas appliances. Because of its good elastic properties, silicon nitride, along with silicon and silicon oxide, is the most popular material for cantilever
A cantilever is a beam anchored at only one end. The beam carries the load to the support where it is resisted by moment and shear stress. Cantilever construction allows for overhanging structures without external bracing. Cantilevers can also be constructed with trusses or slabs.This is in...

s — the sensing elements of atomic force microscopes.

Further reading