Carbon nanotubes boost image sensor sensitivity

NEC has developed an uncooled IR image sensor that incorporates high-purity semiconducting carbon nanotubes (CNTs) in the IR detection area. The company claims the new sensor achieves more than three times the sensitivity of conventional uncooled IR image sensors.

A cooled IR image sensor operates at extremely low temperatures, while uncooled types operate near room temperature. The cooled type is highly sensitive and responsive, but requires bulky, expensive coolers that consume a good deal of electricity. An uncooled sensor is compact, inexpensive, and consumes little power, but has inferior sensitivity and resolution compared to a cooled sensor.

NEC used its proprietary technology to extract only semiconducting-type CNTs from single-walled CNTs containing a mixture of metallic and semiconducting types. Thin films comprising only semiconducting-type CNTs have a large temperature coefficient of resistance (TCR) near room temperature, an important index for high sensitivity. This allows the new sensor to attain more than three times higher sensitivity than mainstream uncooled IR image sensors using vanadium oxide or amorphous silicon.

The new device structure was achieved by combining the thermal separation structure used in uncooled IR image sensors, MEMS device technology, and CNT printing and manufacturing technology. As a result, NEC has succeeded in operating a high-definition uncooled infrared image sensor of 640×480 pixels by arraying the components of the structure.

NEC is working toward the practical application of this image sensor in 2025.


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