Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Imec Presents Thin Film SWIR Sensor with 1.82um Pixel Pitch

Imec unveils a prototype high-resolution SWIR image sensor with record small pixel pitch of 1.82 µm. It is based on a thin-film photodetector that is monolithically integrated on a custom Si-CMOS readout circuit. A fab-compatible process flow paves the way to high-throughput, wafer-level manufacturing.  The presented technology largely exceeds the capabilities of today’s InGaAs-based SWIR imagers in terms of pixel pitch and resolution, with disruptive cost and form factor potential. New applications are enabled even in cost-sensitive domains, such as in industrial machine vision, smart agriculture, automotive, surveillance, life sciences and consumer electronics.

Sensing in SWIR band (with wavelengths from ~1.4 um to above 2 um) offers advantages over the visible  and NIR bands for some applications. SWIR image sensors can, for example, see through smoke or fog, or even through silicon – which is especially relevant for inspection and industrial machine vision applications. To date, SWIR image sensors are produced through a hybrid technology, in which a III-V-based photodetector (usually InGaAs-based) is flip-chip bonded to a silicon readout circuit. These sensors can be made extremely sensitive, but the technology is quite expensive for mass manufacturing and limited in size of pixel and number of pixels – hindering its adoption in markets for which cost, resolution and/or form factor are crucial.

Imec introduces an alternative solution. The photodetector pixel stack implements a thin absorber layer such as 5.5 nm PbS quantum dots – corresponding to peak absorption at 1400 nm wavelength. The peak absorption wavelength can be tuned by adjusting the nanocrystal size and is extendable to wavelengths even above 2000 nm. At the peak SWIR wavelength, an external quantum efficiency (EQE) of 18% is obtained (and can be upgraded towards 50% with further improvements). The photodetector stack is monolithically integrated with a custom ROIC in 130 nm process. In this readout circuit, the 3-transistor pixel design was optimized for the scaling of pixel size in the accessible 130 nm technology node, resulting in record small pitch of 1.82 µm for the prototype SWIR imager.

Pawel Malinowski, imec’s thin-film imagers program manager: “With our compact, high resolution SWIR image sensor technology, we offer our customers a path to affordable low-volume manufacturing within imec’s 200 mm facility. These image sensors can be deployed in industrial machine vision (e.g. photovoltaic panel monitoring), smart agriculture (e.g. inspection and sorting), automotive, surveillance, life sciences (e.g. lens-free imaging) and many more. Due to their small form factor, they can potentially be integrated in small cameras, such as in smartphones or AR/VR glasses – with eye-safe SWIR light sources. Some of exciting future developments include increasing of the EQE (which currently is already at 50% in SWIR on test samples), reducing the sensor noise and introducing multispectral arrays with customized patterning approach.

Imec kindly provided me with a deck of slides presented at a webinar devoted to the new sensor announcement:


  1. What is the status of this technology regarding ROHS regulation ?

    1. Hi Pierre,
      if you look at the photoactive (absorber) layer which is only around 300 nm thick, the Pb content for the image sensor chip is below 0.1%. If you look at the directive 2011/65/EU, there were exemptions for several specific cases. Additionally, this year, Laser Components (DE) took the initiative for RoHS exemption ( At the same time, some companies have a strict Pb-free policy, which makes the research into Pb-free alternatives very timely and needed. There has been some good progress on more environmentally friendly QDs, so this is definitely a very interesting (and hopeful!) R&D topic.
      Greetings / Pawel


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