Ultra-high vacuum (UHV) is the vacuum regime characterised by pressures lower than about 100 nanopascal (10-7 pascal, 10-9mbar, ~10-9torr). UHV conditions are created by pumping the gas out of a UHV chamber. At these low pressures the mean free path of a gas molecule is greater than approximately 40 km, so the gas is in free molecular flow, and gas molecules will collide with the chamber walls many times before colliding with each other. Almost all molecular interactions therefore take place on various surfaces in the chamber.
UHV conditions are integral to scientific research. Surface science experiments often require a chemically clean sample surface with the absence of any unwanted adsorbates. Surface analysis tools such as X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and low energy ion scattering require UHV conditions for the transmission of electron or ion beams. For the same reason, beam pipes in particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider are kept at UHV.
Maintaining UHV conditions requires the use of unusual materials for equipment. Useful concepts for UHV include:
Typically, UHV requires:
Hydrogen and carbon monoxide are the most common background gases in a well-designed, well-baked UHV system. Both Hydrogen and CO diffuse out from the grain boundaries in stainless steel. Helium could diffuse through the steel and glass from the outside air, but this effect is usually negligible due to the low abundance of He in the atmosphere.
Measurement of high vacuum is done using a nonabsolute gauge that measures a pressure-related property of the vacuum, for example, its thermal conductivity. See, for example, Pacey. These gauges must be calibrated. The gauges capable of measuring the lowest pressures are magnetic gauges based upon the pressure dependence of the current in a spontaneous gas discharge in intersecting electric and magnetic fields.
UHV pressures are measured with an ion gauge, either of the hot filament or inverted magnetron type.
In any vacuum system, some gas will continue to escape into the chamber over time and slowly increase the pressure if it is not pumped out. This leak rate is usually measured in mbar L/s or torr L/s. While some gas release is inevitable, if the leak rate is too high, it can slow down or even prevent the system from reaching low pressure.
There are a variety of possible reasons for an increase in pressure. These include simple air leaks, virtual leaks, and desorption (either from surfaces or volume). A variety of methods for leak detection exist. Large leaks can be found by pressurizing the chamber, and looking for bubbles in soapy water, while tiny leaks can require more sensitive methods, up to using a tracer gas and specialized Helium mass spectrometer.
Outgassing is a problem for UHV systems. Outgassing can occur from two sources: surfaces and bulk materials. Outgassing from bulk materials is minimized by selection of materials with low vapor pressures (such as glass, stainless steel, and ceramics) for everything inside the system. Materials which are not generally considered absorbent can outgas, including most plastics and some metals. For example, vessels lined with a highly gas-permeable material such as palladium (which is a high-capacity hydrogen sponge) create special outgassing problems.
Outgassing from surfaces is a subtler problem. At extremely low pressures, more gas molecules are adsorbed on the walls than are floating in the chamber, so the total surface area inside a chamber is more important than its volume for reaching UHV. Water is a significant source of outgassing because a thin layer of water vapor rapidly adsorbs to everything whenever the chamber is opened to air. Water evaporates from surfaces too slowly to be fully removed at room temperature, but just fast enough to present a continuous level of background contamination. Removal of water and similar gases generally requires baking the UHV system at 200 to 400 °C while vacuum pumps are running. During chamber use, the walls of the chamber may be chilled using liquid nitrogen to reduce outgassing further.
In order to reach low pressures, is often useful to heat the entire system above 100 °C for many hours (a process known as bake-out) to remove water and other trace gases which adsorb on the surfaces of the chamber. This may also be required upon "cycling" the equipment to atmosphere. This process significantly speeds up the process of outgassing, allowing low pressures to be reached much faster.
There is no single vacuum pump that can operate all the way from atmospheric pressure to ultra-high vacuum. Instead, a series of different pumps is used, according to the appropriate pressure range for each pump. In the first stage, a roughing pump clears most of the gas from the chamber. This is followed by one or more vacuum pumps that operate at low pressures. Pumps commonly used in this second stage to achieve UHV include:
Turbo pumps and diffusion pumps rely on supersonic attack upon system molecules by the blades and high speed vapor stream, respectively.
To save time, energy, and integrity of the UHV volume an airlock is often used. The airlock volume has one door or valve facing the UHV side of the volume, and another door against atmospheric pressure through which samples or workpieces are initially introduced. After sample introduction and assuring that the door against atmosphere is closed, the airlock volume is typically pumped down to a medium-high vacuum. In some cases the workpiece itself is baked out or otherwise pre-cleaned under this medium-high vacuum. The gateway to the UHV chamber is then opened, the workpiece transferred to the UHV by robotic means or by other contrivance if necessary, and the UHV valve re-closed. While the initial workpiece is being processed under UHV, a subsequent sample can be introduced into the airlock volume, pre-cleaned, and so-on and so-forth, saving much time. Although a "puff" of gas is generally released into the UHV system when the valve to the airlock volume is opened, the UHV system pumps can generally snatch this gas away before it has time to adsorb onto the UHV surfaces. In a system well designed with suitable airlocks, the UHV components seldom need bakeout and the UHV may improve over time even as workpieces are introduced and removed.
Metal seals, with knife edges on both sides cutting into a soft, copper gasket are employed. This metal-to-metal seal can maintain pressures down to 100 pPa (~10-12 Torr). Although generally considered single use, the skilled operator can obtain several uses through the use of feeler gauges of decreasing size with each iteration, as long as the knife edges are in perfect condition.
Many common materials are used sparingly if at all due to high vapor pressure, high adsorptivity or absorptivity resulting in subsequent troublesome outgassing, or high permeability in the face of differential pressure (i.e.: "through-gassing"):
A UHV manipulator allows an object which is inside a vacuum chamber and under vacuum to be mechanically positioned. It may provide rotary motion, linear motion, or a combination of both. The most complex devices give motion in three axes and rotations around two of those axes. To generate the mechanical movement inside the chamber, three basic mechanisms are commonly employed: a mechanical coupling through the vacuum wall (using a vacuum-tight seal around the coupling: a welded metal bellows for example), a magnetic coupling that transfers motion from air-side to vacuum-side: or a sliding seal using special greases of very low vapor pressure or ferromagnetic fluid. Such special greases can exceed USD $100 per ounce. Various forms of motion control are available for manipulators, such as knobs, handwheels, motors, stepping motors, piezoelectric motors, and pneumatics. The use of motors in a vacuum environment often requires special design or other special considerations, as the convective cooling taken for granted under atmospheric conditions is not available in a UHV environment.
The manipulator or sample holder may include features that allow additional control and testing of a sample, such as the ability to apply heat, cooling, voltage, or a magnetic field. Sample heating can be accomplished by electron bombardment or thermal radiation. For electron bombardment, the sample holder is equipped with a filament which emits electrons when biased at a high negative potential. The impact of the electrons bombarding the sample at high energy causes it to heat. For thermal radiation, a filament is mounted close to the sample and resistively heated to high temperature. The infrared energy from the filament heats the sample.
Ultra-high vacuum is necessary for many surface analytic techniques such as:
UHV is necessary for these applications to reduce surface contamination, by reducing the number of molecules reaching the sample over a given time period. At 0.1 mPa (10-6 Torr), it only takes 1 second to cover a surface with a contaminant, so much lower pressures are needed for long experiments.
UHV is also required for:
and, while not compulsory, can prove beneficial in applications such as: