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Startup shows dielectric as sensor technique

October 10, 2007 //

ChipSensors Ltd., a Limerick, Ireland-based startup with a pedigree in sensors and mixed-signal CMOS design, has unveiled a technology that it claims will let the surface of an IC sense temperature, humidity, pathogens and certain gases.


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LONDON ChipSensors Ltd., a Limerick, Ireland-based startup with a pedigree in sensors and mixed-signal CMOS design, has unveiled a technology that it claims will let the surface of an IC sense temperature, humidity, pathogens and certain gases.

Sitting above a conventionally manufactured complex CMOS IC, the embedded-sensor technology may be used to create miniature yet conventional industrial, scientific and medical sensors, with the IC implementing the microcontroller and wireless transmitter to send collected data off-chip.

Central to the technology is the low-k dielectric found in standard submicron CMOS processes. The material's porous nature makes it possible to change its dielectric constant by selectively admitting or blocking ingress of the agent to be sensed, thereby forming the basis of a capacitive sensor.

Normally, the surface of an IC is passivated, so ambient conditions don't affect it. Similarly, the pores of low-k materials are often closed using surface treatment. But ChipSensors claims that exposing a prepared area to ambient conditions allows the resulting electrical characteristics to be detected and measured by means of on-chip circuitry.

Challenging the prevailing view that moisture compromises an IC's long-term reliability, ChipSensors CEO Tim Cummins insists that modern low-k dielectrics aren't prone to swelling. "We can selectively open up part of the surface of the chip, he said. "We usually use only the top level of a multilevel interconnect. The etch-stop layer can prevent buried layers from being affected. The variation in dielectric constant due to moisture or gas ingress can be measured using an 18-bit sigma-delta A/D converter the company has developed.

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