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ECE PhD Defense: "Micro and Nano Electromechanical Systems for Near-Zero Power Infrared Detection," Zhenyun Qian


442 Dana

April 21, 2017 11:00 am
April 21, 2017 11:00 am


Light is one of the most important tools for human beings to probe and sense the physical world. Infrared (IR) radiation located in longer wavelength than that of visible light carries rich information of an environment as it reveals the temperature distribution and chemical composition of objects. In addition, it has been utilized for communication and distance measurement owing to the atmospheric window and insensitiveness of human eyes to the IR radiation. As a result, IR detectors nowadays can be found in a wide variety of applications, including thermal imaging, automotive night vision, standoff chemical detection, remote control and laser ranging, just to mention a few. On the other hand, due to the recent fast development of the Internet of Things (IoT), there is a growing demand for miniaturized and power efficient unattended sensors that can be widely distributed in large volumes to form a wireless sensor networks capable of monitoring the environment with high accuracy and long lifetime. In this context, micro and nano electromechanical systems (MEMS/NEMS) may provide a huge impact, since they can be used for the implementation of miniaturized, low power, high-performance sensors and wireless communication devices fully compatible with standard integrated circuitry.

This dissertation presents the design and the experimental verification of high performance uncooled IR detectors based on Aluminum Nitride (AlN) nano electromechanical resonators, and a first-of-its-kind near-zero power IR digitizer based on plasmonically-enhanced micromechanical photoswitches.  
The unique advantages of the piezoelectric AlN thin film in terms of scaling in thickness and transduction efficiency are exploited by the first experimental demonstration of ultra-fast (thermal time constant, τ ~80μs) and high resolution (noise equivalent power, NEP ~656 pW/Hz1/2) AlN NEMS resonant IR detectors with reduced pixel size comparable to the state-of-the-art microbolometers. Furthermore, the spectral selectivity of the proposed IR detector technology is investigated and demonstrated by the seamless integration of ultra-thin plasmonic absorbers. The first prototypes show strong absorption (> 92%) in mid-wavelength infrared range with a narrow bandwidth (full width at half maximum, FWHM < 17%), resulting in the demonstration of high resolution (NEP ~ 100s pW/Hz1/2) narrowband infrared detectors suitable for IR spectroscopy and multispectral imaging system. The second part of the dissertation is focused on the discussion and development of a new class of IR wake-up sensors that can remain dormant, with near-zero power consumption, until awoken by an external signal of interest. The proposed near-zero power IR digitizer combines sensing, signal processing and comparator functionalities into a single passive microelectromechanical system capable of producing a digitized output bit in the presence of the unique infrared spectral signature associated to an event of interest. The prototypes reported in this dissertation are capable of producing a digitized output bit (i.e. a large and sharp OFF-to-ON state transition with ON/OFF conductance ratio ~10e12 and subthreshold slope > 12 dec/nW) when exposed to IR radiation in a specific narrow spectral band (~900 nm bandwidth in the mid-IR) with intensity above a power threshold of only ~500 nW, which is not achievable with any existing photoswitch technologies. The two IR sensing elements presented here set a stepping stone towards the development of highly sensitive and persistent IR sensor nodes that required for the future event-driven wireless sensor networks.

  • Professor Matteo Rinaldi (Advisor)
  • Professor Nicol McGruer
  • Professor Yongmin Liu
  • Professor Swastik Kar