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An optical study based on spectroscopic ellipsometry, performed on ultrathin hydrogenated amorphous silicon (a-Si:H) layers, is presented in this work. Ultrathin layers of intrinsic amorphous silicon have been deposited on n-type mono-crystalline silicon (c-Si) wafers by plasma enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD). The layer thicknesses along with their optical properties –including their refractive index and optical loss- were characterized by spectroscopic ellipsometry (SE) in a wavelength range from 250 nm to 850 nm. The data was fitted to a Tauc-Lorentz optical model and the fitting parameters were extracted and used to compute the refractive index, extinction coefficient and optical bandgap. Furthermore, the a-Si:H film grown on silicon was etched at a controlled rate using a TMAH solution prepared at room temperature. The optical properties along with the Tauc-Lorentz fitting parameters were extracted from the model as the film thickness was reduced. The etch rate for ultrathin a-Si:H layers in TMAH at room temperature was found to slow down drastically as the c-Si interface is approached. From the Tauc-Lorentz parameters obtained from SE, it was found that the a-Si film exhibited properties that evolved with thickness suggesting that the deposited film is non-homogeneous across its depth. It was also found that the degree of crystallinity and optical (Tauc) bandgap increased as the layers were reduced in thickness and coming closer to the c-Si substrate interface, suggesting the presence of nano-structured clusters mixed into the amorphous phase for the region close to the crystalline silicon substrate. Further results from Atomic Force Microscopy and Transmission Electron Microscopy confirmed the presence of an interfacial transitional layer between the amorphous film and the underlying substrate showing silicon nano-crystalline enclosures that can lead to quantum confinement effects. Quantum confinement is suggested to be the cause of the observed increase in the optical bandgap of a-Si:H films close to the a-Si:H/cSi interface.


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