METHODS FOR TREATING OBJECTS
This is a continuation of application Ser. No. 09/253,629, filed Feb. 19, 1999 now U.S. Pat. No. 6,143,087, which is a continuation of 08/559,716, filed Nov. 15, 1995, now abandoned, which is a continuation of Ser. No. 08/169,725, filed Dec. 17,1993, now abandoned, which is a continuation of Ser. No. 07/771,352, filed Oct. 4, 1991, now abandoned.
BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
There are numerous applications for the cleaning of sensitive components, such as spacecraft components, bearings, and electronic equipment. Electronic or electrical components can become contaminated through usage, e.g., by smoke, dust, and other airborne contaminants, or by oils or lubricants. Oils are more difficult to displace than many other contaminants due to their lower surface tensions and higher viscosities, which make them difficult to remove with many solvents and/or detergents.
A number of alcohols, fhiorinated alcohols and other halogenated compounds have been found to be effective as displacing agents for contaminants, particularly oily contaminants. For example, chlorinated hydrocarbons and chlorofiuorocarbons (CFCs), such as FreonsTM, are commonly used. Concentrated corrosive acids or bases have also been used as cleaning agents. These reagents are often costly, hazardous to handle and present environmental and disposal problems.
Sonic cleaning has been used for decontaminating and/or disinfecting instruments used in medical, dental, surgical or food processing, for example. This method generally involves placing the instruments in an aqueous bath and treating them with ultrasonic energy. Treatment with ultrasonic energy has long been recognized to be lethal to microorganisms suspended in a liquid, as described, for example, by Boucher in U.S. Pat. No. 4,211,744 (1980). Ultrasonic energy has also been used for cleaning and sterilizing contact lenses (U.S. Pat. No. 4,382,824 Halleck (1983)), surgical instruments (U.S. Pat. No. 4,193,818, Young et al. (1980) and U.S. Pat. No. 4,448,750 (1984)) and even body parts, such as a doctor's hands (U.S. Pat. No. 3,481,687, Fishman (1969)).
After fluid processing, the components normally need to be dried. Evaporation of rinsing liquids is not desirable since it often leads to spotting or streaking. Even the evaporation of ultra high purity water can lead to problems when drying on the surfaces of some components. For example, such water can dissolve traces of silicon and silicon dioxide on semiconductor surfaces, and subsequent evaporation will leave residues of the solute material on the wafer surface.
A device known as a spin-rinser-drier is useful for drying objects without water evaporation. These devices utilize centrifugal force to "throw " the water off the surfaces of the object. This can cause breakage because of the mechanical stress placed on the object, particularly with larger or fragile objects. In addition, contamination control is problematic due to the mechanical complexity of the spin-rinser-drier. Since the objects conventionally travel through dry nitrogen at a high velocity, static electric charges can develop on the surface of the object. Oppositely charged airborne particles are then quickly drawn to the object's surface when the drier is opened, resulting in particulate contamination. Finally, it is difficult to avoid evaporation of water from the surface of the object during the spin cycle with the attendant disadvantages discussed above.
More recently, methods and devices have been developed for steam or chemical drying of sensitive objects. Chemical
drying generally comprises two steps. First, the rinsing fluid is driven off and replaced by a non-aqueous drying fluid. Second, the non-aqueous drying fluid is evaporated using a pre-dried gas, such as nitrogen. A method for chemically
5 drying semiconductor wafers using isopropanol is described in U.S. Pat. No. 4,778,532, and in U.S. Pat. No. 4,911,761.
It is an object of the present invention to provide a process and apparatus which can be used for degreasing, cleaning and drying of sensitive components, particularly compo
1° nents having complex configurations.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
The present invention relates to methods and apparatus for cleaning the surface of an object by placing the object in an enclosed vessel and sequentially passing cleaning and/or rinsing fluids through the vessel, then drying the object under conditions which do not permit the deposition of residues on the surface of the object. The cleaning and rinsing fluids are selected based on the type of contamination to be removed and can include aqueous and nonaqueous fluids. In a preferred embodiment, sonic energy is applied to at least one of the fluids in the vessel.
The process is particularly useful for cleaning sensitive
25 electronic components, such as complex parts, e.g., reading heads used in computer systems for reading and/or recording information on disks. The process is useful for cleaning hard disks, aerospace parts (e.g., gyroscopes, ball bearings), medical devices and other precision parts. The process can
30 be used to defhix printed circuit boards, and for degreasing microparts, in particular, as a replacement for traditional FreonTM processing. Components having numerous interfaces and facets, that is, which are involuted, can be thoroughly cleaned and dried using the present method. The
35 present protocols can be used on metallic, ceramic or plastic surfaces.
The apparatus comprises an enclosure for enclosing the object to be cleaned, and means for passing a flow of liquid though the enclosure and around the object disposed therein.
40 Cleaning and rinsing liquids are preferably introduced into the vessel through a port located in the bottom of the vessel. The apparatus may include a means for agitating the liquid to permit thorough cleaning or rinsing of all surfaces. Preferably a means for generating sonic waves, which can be
45 ultrasonic or megasonic energy, is used for this purpose. The apparatus optionally can contain spray heads for precleaning the object by spraying it with a liquid to remove gross contaminants. The apparatus contains a means for removing the liquid from the enclosure which can be a
50 second port located at the top of the vessel, and means for drying the object by filling the vessel with an organic drying solvent or vapor.
In a preferred embodiment of the invention, means for introducing inert gas or air and means for circulating the
55 washing or rinsing liquids through the vessel are included in the apparatus. The vessel preferably comprises a port at its top so that a fluid in the vessel can be vented out the top port while a second fluid is introduced into the vessel through the bottom port. Vapor or gas is introduced through an inlet at
60 the top to displace a fluid downwardly through the bottom. This allows one fluid to be directly replaced with another fluid without exposing the objects to air. The two ports may be connected via a line, thereby permitting a fluid to be circulated through the vessel. The apparatus preferably
65 includes means for supplying the vessel with a washing or rinsing liquid without exposing the fluid to the air. In one embodiment, a storage tank containing the liquid is con