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An efficient method has been investigated to grow GaN films with sapphire substrates being treated in situ metalorganic chemical vapor deposition reactor for a special effect rather than simple thermal cleaning. First, a thin GaN layer is grown on the sapphire substrate. And then it is almost etched away by thermal decomposition. It is found that the decomposition of GaN induces the decomposition of sapphire resulting in the formation of high-density nanocraters on its surface. Finally the device-quality GaN film is regrown on the etched substrate with residual gallium droplets as nucleation sites. The chemistry of the etching process and the mechanism of the final GaN growth process have been discussed. The distinct feature of this method is the in situ formation of high-density nanocraters on the surface of the substrate. A rough interface between the substrate and GaN can improve the efficiency of the light-emitting diode built on it greatly. © 2004 American Institute of Physics.