Date of Award

Fall 12-16-2022

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Robert J. Lad

Second Committee Member

Mauricio Pereira da Cunha

Third Committee Member

Robert W. Meulenberg

Additional Committee Members

MacKenzie R. Stetzer

Liping Yu


The use of surface acoustic wave (SAW) sensors in high temperature harsh environments such as those found in power plants, industrial manufacturing, or aerospace applications allows for monitoring of internal conditions at locations where traditional sensors do not operate or are unreliable. Surface acoustic wave resonator (SAWR) sensors are based on piezoelectric materials and feature a small passive low-profile self-powered design that can operate and wirelessly transmit data to monitor parameters such as temperature, pressure, or strain. SAWR sensors typically consist of a series of metal electrodes fabricated onto a bulk crystal piezoelectric such as langasite (La3Ga5SiO14). However, there are major advantages in using thin film piezoelectrics such as AlN and ScxAl1-xN rather than bulk single crystal piezoelectrics, including the ability to fabricate devices on a wider range of substrates allowing for greater tuning of devices properties.

This thesis investigates the film growth, materials characterization, and surface acoustic wave resonator (SAWR) device behavior of AlN and ScxAl1-xN thin film piezoelectric materials. AlN has many properties that make it an ideal candidate for harsh environment SAW sensors, including the ability to remain piezoelectric up to 1200oC, stability in air up to 700oC, and relatively high phase velocity and low acoustic loss. In this work, piezoelectric AlN and ScxAl1-xN films were synthesized at 930oC using a nitrogen plasma-assisted e-beam evaporation

growth method, and the influence of substrate preparation, Al flux, Sc flux, N-plasma flux, and the use of a TiN (111) seed layer were investigated. The films contain epitaxial (0002) oriented grains that yield piezoelectric coupling when integrated into SAWR devices, and the specific film growth parameters that determine epitaxial film quality are correlated with SAWR response and the film electromechanical coupling coefficient (k2).

The piezoelectric strength of AlN can be enhanced by alloying with Sc to form a ScxAl1-xN film and this increases the magnitude of electromechanical coupling by up to 400%. ScxAl1-xN films were grown with Sc compositions ranging from 8% to 57% and the electromechanical coupling constant, k2, extracted from SAWR device measurements was found to be significantly increased compared to AlN. A prototype Sc0.13Al0.87N-based SAWR temperature sensor was fabricated and packaged at the Frontier Institute for Research in Sensor Technologies (FIRST) and tested on an exhaust baffle in the UMaine Steam Plant for over 1000 hours, demonstrating the transition of the research from a Technology Readiness Level of ‘experimental proof of concept’ to ‘system prototype demonstration in an operational environment’.

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