Detection of surface contamination on niobium materials used in superconducting radio frequency (SRF) applications is difficult due to quantitative sensitivity and near-atomic depth resolution needed. Inspection of samples known to have experienced surface contamination was found to have inconsistent nitride coverage after high-temperature nitrogen gas exposure (“doping”). We compare contaminating species found on samples treated in several different vacuum furnaces, both “exposed” directly in the chamber and “protected” by containment shielding from evaporative sources with “furnace caps.” Typically, furnace caps are used to impede contamination from reaching the interior surface of cavities during the high-temperature vacuum bake that immediately precedes exposure to nitrogen gas. Although, to date, little is known about the effectiveness of these caps, SIMS results showed that they were effective in limiting contamination arising from the furnace environment. Inspection of sample surfaces by SEM showed a lack of nitrides present on contaminated specimens. TEM with energy dispersive spectroscopy performed on these samples revealed that a carbon-rich layer now existed, indicating that a relatively high contaminant load prevents the nucleation and growth of surface nitrides, while thus inhibiting interstitial nitrogen uptake. Except in extreme cases, subsequent removal of the top several micrometers of the surface via electropolishing appears to effectively eliminate any strong influence on the subsequent SRF cavity performance. With the absence of furnace cleaning, carbon contamination was found to be nearly 10× higher for protected nitrogen-doped and electropolished samples, with minimal metallic contamination detected for both processes. SIMS analysis was also performed to compare the cleanliness of samples fully prepared by such nitrogen “doping” with those prepared by a related process, involving the dissolution of niobium surface oxide and diffusion of oxygen into the surface. This oxygen doping or alloying process offers attractive advantages.

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See the supplementary material online for EBSD and extra SIMS Mass spectra.

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