Electromigration is one of the most critical problems limiting the future scaling of integrated circuits (ICs).  As more transistors are packed into ever smaller volumes, the total length of interconnecting wire is increasing as the wire simultaneously becomes narrower and more vulnerable to failure. Surprisingly, while chip fabs are presently churning out microprocessors at the “5-nm process node” with correspondingly tiny interconnects, before recent work by a STROBE team no measurements of electromigration pressures had been reported at length scales smaller than 10 μm.

Using electron-beam lithography, the  team fabricates tiny aluminum nanowires on electron-transparent silicon nitride membranes. They then apply an electrical current density of 108 A/cm2,  which is enough to drive electromigration, and map the nanowire’s density with parts-per-thousand precision using electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS) in a scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM).  Two separable effects appear.  First, thermal expansion decreases the wire’s density as Joule heating raises its temperature. Using aluminum’s known coefficient of thermal expansion, one can convert the density map into a temperature map with the same spatial resolution.  Second, via the electron “wind force” the electrical current simultaneously compresses one end of the wire while it tensions the other. Using aluminum’s known bulk modulus,  one can convert the density map into a pressure map.  The temperature effect is independent of the direction of the current, while the pressure effect changes sign with the current’s direction, which allows the two effects to be separated.  Thus the thermodynamic state variables T and P can be mapped with high spatial resolution everywhere inside the wire. The ability to simultaneously see the prompt thermal and electron-wind-force effects in nanoscale interconnects opens entirely new avenues for studying electromigration, a key technological problem in the microprocessors powering modern computing devices.