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  • Back-Illuminated CMOS Image Sensors Come to the Fore

Photonics Spectra
May 2010
Richard D. Crisp and Giles Humpston, Tessera Inc.

Solid-state image sensors come in two variants: CCD and CMOS. CCDs generally offer superior image quality. However, CMOS dominates in manufacturing volume because it permits an integrated solution in which both the imaging device and processing electronics can be fabricated in a single die.

The vast majority of CMOS image sensors are front-side illuminated; i.e., the light from the scene to be imaged falls on the processed face of the semiconductor. Another variety is back-side illuminated, where the die is mounted inverted and the light falls on the unprocessed face of the semiconductor. This configuration yields performance comparable to CCD imagers but with higher manufacturing cost and more complex packaging requirements. Recent breakthroughs in semiconductor processing and wafer-scale packaging techniques make back-illuminated image sensors attractive candidates for higher-resolution imagers on mobile platforms, where small size and good light sensitivity are highly prized.

Figure 1.
This schematic cross section is through a front-illuminated CMOS image sensor. For reasons of physics, the photodetectors are buried ~10 μm deep in the silicon. The wiring trace that connects to each pixel is built on the surface of the wafer and carefully routed to minimize pixel obscuration. The resulting aperture influences the maximum angle of captured incident light and gives rise to a potential crosstalk mechanism. Images courtesy of Tessera.

CMOS imager design trade-offs

The cost of a camera module is directly proportional to two size metrics: the diagonal of the imager die and the diameter of the optics. Image sensors from only a few years back had pixel dimensions of tens of microns. In 2009, 1.4-μm pixels were considered standard, and most sensor manufacturers had road maps out to 0.9 μm. However, small pixels exhibit poor performance in low-light environments. There are three reasons for this:

1. Reduced light collection area of each pixel. All other factors being equal, a large pixel will collect more light flux than a small pixel, resulting in a better signal-to-noise ratio in the image.

2. With a CMOS image sensor, off-axis light rays are blocked by the aperture formed by the dielectric and wiring layers above the pixel (Figure 1). The smaller the pixel, the proportionately smaller the unobscured window, allowing less light through to the photodetector.

3. The vertical separation between the wiring aperture and the photodetector forms an optical tunnel that restricts the field of view of each pixel. This is termed the chief ray admittance angle and is most acute for small pixels. Unless the optics are configured so that light falls on the image sensor at a perpendicular angle, light-collection efficiency will fall off, particularly at the sensor edges. The required telecentric lenses are generally incompatible with cheap, compact optical trains because the train requires the rear optical surface to be both large diameter and large radius of curvature.

Back-illuminated CMOS image sensors

CMOS back-illuminated image sensors largely solve the above problems. In this configuration, the wiring trace is underneath the photodetector (Figure 2). The entire area of each pixel can be used for photon capture with no restrictions on the chief ray admittance angle and almost complete elimination of adjacent pixel optical crosstalk. Although a typical front-side-illuminated image sensor has a quantum efficiency (QE) – the effective conversion of photons to electrons – of 20 percent, the QE of a back-side illuminated imager can exceed 80 percent. This performance gain can be used to dramatically boost low-light sensitivity or to reduce imager size. For example, reducing a 2.8-µm pixel (at 20 percent QE) to 1.4 µm (at 60 percent QE) results in the same sensitivity but decreases the area of a corresponding VGA imager by 62 percent.

Figure 2.
In this schematic cross section through a back-illuminated CMOS image sensor, the die is fabricated in the conventional orientation, but the bulk silicon is then removed, exposing the photodetectors. Making the photodetectors large and easily accessible trades manufacturing cost against performance and/or size.

Visible light can penetrate only a short distance into silicon. Therefore, to expose the photodetectors in a back-illuminated CMOS sensor, the majority of the original wafer thickness must be removed. The thinning uniformity must be extremely precise because excess silicon presents an effectively opaque barrier. Thickness variation manifests itself as sensor shadowing, and high average thickness will render the sensor unresponsive. Clearly, there also are basic handling and yield issues with 30-mm-diameter silicon wafers that have been thinned to 20 μm.

A simple way to accurately control wafer thinning is to fabricate imagers on silicon-on-insulator (SOI) wafers because the buried oxide layer provides an effective stop for the silicon etch. The drawback of this approach is that these wafers are more expensive than conventional device-grade silicon. However, SOI wafers also provide a less obvious benefit that makes their use as the starting material for CMOS back-illuminated image sensor manufacture rather attractive.

Achieving high quantum efficiency and wide dynamic range from a photodetector essentially requires keeping dark leakage current low and efficiently collecting charge generated by photon absorption. Both goals can be accomplished with an accumulation layer in the form of a p-type surface doping. A simple way to do this is to exploit the SOI wafer structure. Before sensor fabrication, the device layer of the SOI wafer is doped with a heavy p-type element at the interface to the buried oxide layer. The various heat treatments during device fabrication will activate and redistribute the impurities, forming the desired surface accumulation layer when it is exposed by the etch process.

Back-illuminated CMOS image sensors are not without problems. But a general truism is that they provide improved imaging performance for increased die cost.

Back-illuminated CMOS image sensor packaging

As with their front-face counterparts, back-illuminated CMOS image sensors require a cavity package for their function and longevity. However, packaging of back-illuminated image sensors poses special challenges, not least because the die are used inverted, so the bond pads face the package substrate and are therefore inaccessible.

Figure 3.
This imager die, housed in a wafer-scale package, uses a low-cost via-through-pad interconnect to connect the die bond pads to the package lands and the ball grid array interface. It is based on polymer technology with a single redistribution layer for the wiring trace, making it very low cost and highly reliable compared with other variants of through-silicon via.

The generally adopted solution is to use through-silicon via technology to connect the bond pads to new lands on the optically active face of the die. The die then can be wire-bonded in the conventional manner. The principal objection to this arrangement is cost because it entails implementing two interconnect technologies. A preferred solution is to use a wafer-scale package with a ball grid array interface so that the contacts remain underneath the die and do not have to pass through it. A modern wafer-scale package for image sensors is shown in Figure 3. The package thickness is approximately 500 μm, making it eminently suitable for electronic products where the current fashion is for extreme thinness.


Back illumination offers the prospect of a new generation of mass-produced CMOS image sensors for both optical and nonoptical imaging. It permits a significant improvement in quantum efficiency, which can be used to reduce pixel size. The ability to manufacture small pixels permits imager resolution to increase while the size of the resulting camera module decreases.

Back-illuminated image sensors are preferably housed in wafer-scale packages that use via-through-pad interconnects to a ball grid array interface because this arrangement obviates the need to use costly through-silicon vias. The primary application is likely to be higher-resolution cameras for mobile platforms, where the increased imager cost can be borne, with camera size being paramount.

Meet the authors

Richard D. Crisp is the director of semiconductor technology and applications, and Giles Humpston is the director of applications, both at Tessera Inc.; e-mail:;

The transfer of energy from an incident electromagnetic energy field with wavelength or frequency to an atomic or molecular medium.
An opening or hole through which radiation or matter may pass.
The measure of departure from a flat surface, as applied to lenses; the reciprocal of radius. Applies to any surface, including lenses, mirrors and image surfaces.
Exhibiting the characteristic of materials that are electrical insulators or in which an electric field can be sustained with a minimum dispersion of power. They exhibit nonlinear properties, such as anisotropy of conductivity or polarization, or saturation phenomena.
That branch of science involved in the study and utilization of the motion, emissions and behaviors of currents of electrical energy flowing through gases, vacuums, semiconductors and conductors, not to be confused with electrics, which deals primarily with the conduction of large currents of electricity through metals.
In optics, an image is the reconstruction of light rays from a source or object when light from that source or object is passed through a system of optics and onto an image forming plane. Light rays passing through an optical system tend to either converge (real image) or diverge (virtual image) to a plane (also called the image plane) in which a visual reproduction of the object is formed. This reconstructed pictorial representation of the object is called an image.
optical surface
A reflecting or refracting surface contained within an optical system.
A device used to sense incident radiation.
Contraction of "picture element." A small element of a scene, often the smallest resolvable area, in which an average brightness value is determined and used to represent that portion of the scene. Pixels are arranged in a rectangular array to form a complete image.
A cross-sectional slice cut from an ingot of either single-crystal, fused, polycrystalline or amorphous material that has refined surfaces either lapped or polished. Wafers are used either as substrates for electronic device manufacturing or as optics. Typically, they are made of silicon, quartz, gallium arsenide or indium phosphide.
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