AlxGa1-xN/GaN (x similar to 0.3) heterostructures with and without a high-temperature (HT) AlN interlayer (IL) have been grown on sapphire (Al2O3) substrates and AlN buffer/Al2O3 templates by metal organic chemical vapor deposition. The effects of an AlN buffer layer (BL) grown on an Al2O3 substrate and an AlN IL grown under the AlGaN ternary layer (TL) on structural, morphological, and optical properties of the heterostructures have been investigated by high-resolution x-ray diffraction, spectroscopic ellipsometry, atomic force microscopy, and photoluminescence measurements. The AlN BL improves the crystal quality of the AlGaN TL. Further improvement is achieved by inserting an AlN IL between GaN BL and AlGaN TL. However, experimental results also show that a HT AlN IL leads to relatively rough surfaces on AlGaN TLs, and an AlN IL changes the strain in the AlGaN TL from tensile to compressive type. In addition, an AlN BL improves the top surface quality of heterostructures. (c) 2007 American Institute of Physics.