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Nanomaterials February 2021 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Madeeha Uppal

Short-Wave Infrared Sensing

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Cost-effective shortwave infrared image sensors could give many existing products significant additional functionality and enable the creation of entirely new products. Existing technology is prohibitively expensive for high-volume products. However, recent research into quantum-dot-based sensors could open up the SWIR to a variety of consumer applications.

Description

In December 2020, Imec announced the results of its research into high-resolution shortwave infrared (SWIR) image sensors, operating in the wavelength range from approximately 1.4 to 3 micrometers. According to eeNews Europe, the sensors—based on lead sulfide quantum dots measuring just 5.5 nanometers (nm) in diameter—readily integrate with complementary-metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) processes and display a record-small pixel pitch of 1.82 micrometers. This particular size of quantum dots gives the photodetector a peak absorption at 1,400 nm, with a very high external quantum efficiency (EQE) of 18%. However, tuning the size of the nanoparticles can shift the peak absorption to wavelengths greater than 2,000 nm. Furthermore, the group is currently testing improvements that it hopes could enhance the EQE as high as 50%. In addition to improving the EQE, further developments under consideration also include noise reduction and fabrication of multispectral sensors that enable broadband signal detection.

Implications and Disruptions

Several aspects of the Imec research could lead to its becoming a highly disruptive development. The technology is—unlike indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs), the current industry standard for SWIR applications—compatible with CMOS processes, which means that it would require little in the way of new fabrication infrastructure and that high-volume wafer-level manufacturing processes would be readily available. Furthermore, quantum-dot-based sensors are significantly (perhaps by two orders of magnitude) cheaper than InGaAs technology, making high-volume applications accessible in a way that is not currently possible with InGaAs technology. SWIR vision is of particular interest across a number of consumer applications, partially as a result of this portion of the electromagnetic spectrum's encompassing the "eye-safe" wavelengths.

Some applications currently under industry consideration include passenger monitoring and sensing in poor-visibility conditions in the automotive sector, integration with smartphone cameras for three-dimensional reconstructions, and augmented-reality/virtual-reality glasses. These types of high-volume product would be commercially unviable using current technology, which finds use in health-, military-, and aerospace-based applications where price considerations are not an overriding factor.

One drawback of the Imec research is its use of a lead-based material. Governing bodies strictly control the use of lead, because it is a toxic heavy metal. Despite the fact that the levels finding use in the image sensors are too low to contravene any restrictions, the incorporation of toxic materials in consumer-based applications may be a difficult sell for some corporations. At present, lead-based quantum-dot materials are the only ones that can achieve such impressive results, and—whereas research into nontoxic replacement materials is ongoing—this work is very much at a preliminary stage.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Automotive, sensing, AR/VR, consumer electronic devices, surveillance, health, spectroscopy

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Opportunities in Sensors

By Guy Garrud
Garrud is a consultant with Strategic Business Insights.

Why is this topic significant?

Myriad opportunities for nanosensors may develop in the coming years if developers can address issues such as nanomaterials' manufacturability at an attractive cost, sensor design, and process integration. Addressing these issues could enable these devices to see increased use in consumer electronics, automotive vehicles, industrial processes, and medicine and health care.

Description

Chemical (solid, liquid, and gas) and biochemical nanosensors are likely to find use in leak detection (such as the detection of toxic gas), industrial-chemical-process monitoring, medical monitoring and analysis (such as glucose monitoring, blood analysis, pathogen screening, and DNA analysis), biowarfare detection, gas alarms, environmental-pollution monitoring, air-quality control (in vehicles or in homes and commercial buildings), and automotive-emissions monitoring. In some sensor markets, such as the gas-sensing sector, the industry structure remains fragmented, with a lot of customized sensor design taking place in which one type of sensor detects a specific chemical species. The use of nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes may enable the commercialization of sensors (and portable analyzers such as electronic noses) that are capable of monitoring or detecting the presence of more than one chemical or biological species and can enable nanosensor producers to target more than one application and industry sector.

Market Opportunities

Any analysis of the market and state of commercialization of nanosensors needs to take the current solid-state-microsensors business into account, particularly as it relates to gas sensors. Some overlap is bound to occur, whereby both micromachining and nanotechnology represent enabling technologies in use to fabricate a particular sensor. One important question is what advantage the incorporation of nanomaterials or other forms of nanotechnology actually brings to end users. Because the cost of nanosensors is very materials dependent and remains relatively high, the main driver for commercialization is likely to be improved performance—specifically, improved sensitivity, selectivity, and the ability to measure where measurement was previously impossible. In applications that are mature or when cost is a major issue, nanosensor developers may find that successful commercialization proves difficult. Therefore, one should not expect real-world opportunities to emerge and develop for the vast majority of nanosensors under current development in the short term. Nevertheless, we will continue to see significant progress in nanosensor design, development, and fabrication in the coming years.

To date, only a small number of applications dominate the nanosensors business. Giant magnetoresistive heads do not usually count in market assessments for sensors, but their value does dwarf that of all other types of gas and chemical microsensors. At present, three main classes of device dominate the market for nanosensors: physical sensors for research and imaging (namely, tips for atomic-force microscopy and variants thereof), advanced chemical or gas sensors, and nanobiosensors. In the last case, the approaches are numerous: use of electrochemical immunoassays, detection based on a quartz microbalance or nanofluidics, or use of some kind of molecular probe such as a functionalized nanoparticle as the method of electronic detection. For example, researchers are developing advanced nanobiosensors that encompass nanowires, nanoparticle arrays, and nanofluidics to detect single molecules and for noninvasive analysis.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Research and development, aerospace, defense, automotive, health care

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: