Near-Infrared image sensor shines in low light

Omnivision Nyxel 2
OmniVision's Nyxel 2 sensor incorporates a refined silicon semiconductor architecture for improved quantum efficiency (QE) in the invisible 940nm NIR light spectrum and the barely visible 850nm NIR wavelength. (OmniVision)

OmniVision Technologies Inc. has updated its near-infrared (NIR) technology for image sensors that operate in low to no ambient light conditions. Designated Nyxel 2, the sensor refines its silicon semiconductor architectures and processes for improved quantum efficiency (QE), providing a 25% improvement in the invisible 940nm NIR light spectrum and a 17% improvement at the barely visible 850nm NIR wavelength.

These sensitivity improvements enable image sensors to see farther under the same amount of light, further extending the image detection range. Nyxel 2-based camera systems also require fewer LED lights, thus reducing overall power consumption and extending battery life. These added benefits make Nyxel 2 an ideal technology for surveillance systems, automotive in-cabin driving monitoring systems and the burgeoning under-display sensors in mobile devices.

“Nyxel 2 technology further extends OmniVision’s leadership in NIR image sensing,” said Lindsay Grant, senior vice president of process engineering at OmniVision, in a statement. “Pushing the envelope of NIR performance opens new possibilities for applications that operate in near or total darkness, including more accurate driver-state monitoring, better surveillance capabilities for security systems and under-display sensing applications for mobile devices.” 

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Machine and night vision camera applications rely on NIR technology, because NIR light illuminates objects with wavelengths outside the visible spectrum, avoiding any interference with the surrounding environment. Additionally, because the night sky contains more NIR photons than visible photons, greater NIR sensitivity allows for higher-resolution image capture with fewer power-hungry LEDs, which is highly desirable for battery-powered and night vision security camera applications.

According to the company, competing CMOS approaches for NIR image sensing continue to rely solely on thick silicon to improve NIR sensitivity. However, this results in cross-talk and reduces the modulation transfer function (MTF). Attempts to overcome this by introducing deep trench isolation (DTI) often lead to defects that corrupt the dark area of the image. With Nyxel 2, OmniVision combines thick-silicon pixel architectures with careful management of wafer surface texture to improve quantum efficiency, along with extended DTI to retain the MTF levels of the first generation without affecting the sensor’s dark current.

These refinements enable OmniVision’s Nyxel 2 to achieve 50% QE at 940nm—reportedly a 25% improvement over the first generation, as measured using data from a 2.9 micron pixel. At the 850nm NIR wavelength, Nyxel 2 can provide 70% QE, which is now on par with the QE levels of top RGB sensors that operate with visible light.

According to Omnivision, the sensor enables designers to reduce the number of IR LEDs around security camera lenses to save on both cost and power consumption, or use the same number of LEDs to increase the brightness of captures taken in total darkness. For automotive driver monitoring systems, accuracy can be increased while placing fewer LEDs in harder-to-see places within the cabin. For smartphones, the LEDs can be reduced to help extend battery life, while squeezing more components into compact form factors that both enable design innovation and reduce BOM costs.

OmniVision’s first image sensors with Nyxel 2 technology are expected to be available during the second half of 2020.

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