Microscopic properties of thin films are often strongly influenced by departures from “perfection.” These can take the form of extended defects such as dislocations, interfacial roughness, or point defects. Direct imaging of extended defects was one of the early contributions of electron microscopy to solid-state science. Since then, the role of extended defects in controlling the fabrication and properties of thin films has been extensively studied and reviewed. Recently, in-situ observation of strain relaxation in thin-film structures has increased our understanding of dislocation kinetics and its effect on properties of thin films.
In this article, we focus on electron microscopic studies of interfacial roughness, the effect of processing on thin films, and the role and properties of intrinsic point defects in solids. Concurrent development of sophisticated theoretical and experimental approaches has substantially facilitated the investigation of point-defect properties. Here, we illustrate how results from theory and experiment can be combined to form a detailed picture of point-defect diffusion in solids, and highlight areas needing increased attention. Microscopic properties of thin films cannot be covered in a single review. For this reason, and because fabrication of semiconducting thin films has reached unprecedented levels of sophistication, we illustrate this article with references to semiconducting materials.
Our main conclusions can be summarized as follows, (a) Thin films of the highest quality are bounded by interfaces that are microscopically rough. Moreover, thin-film interfaces contain roughness on many length scales, each affecting a subset of the physical properties of interest.