Dense polycrystalline thin films of ZrO2 (3 and 8 mol % Y2O3) were produced by the pyrolysis of zirconium acetate precursor films, which were deposited on single crystal Al2O3 substrates by spin-coating aqueous solutions of zirconium acetate and yttrium nitrate. Dense films were heat treated to encourage grain growth. With grain growth, these films broke into islands of ZrO2 grains. Identical areas were examined after each heat treatment to determine the mechanism that causes the polycrystalline film to uncover the substrate. Two mechanisms were detailed: (a) for a composition which inhibited grain growth and produced a polycrystalline film with very small grains, the smallest grains would disappear to uncover the substrate, and (b) for a composition which did not inhibit grain boundary motion, larger grains grew by enveloping a smaller grain and then developed more spherical surface morphologies, uncovering the substrate at three grain junctions. In both cases, the breakup phenomenon occurred when the average grain size was larger than the film thickness. Thermodynamic calculations show that this breakup lowers the free energy of the system when the grain-size-to-film-thickness ratio exceeds a critical value. These calculations also predict the conditions needed for polycrystalline thin film stability.
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