High performance thermal imaging cameras: technological and scientific tour de force
Sherbrooke, May 8, 2019 – Until recently, only military agencies could afford high-performance thermal imaging cameras due to the high cost of producing the microelectronic chips at the heart of them. But several sectors of civilian applications, including assisted or autonomous driving at night, energy efficiency measurement, and environmental monitoring or for emergency services would gladly take advantage of this technology’s ability to image objects in time real according to their temperature—if the price was lower. This opportunity created a global race to lower the cost of manufacturing high-performance thermal imaging sensors on a large scale.
Synergy Award for Innovation
The goal was achieved in 2018, and it positions Canada as a winner. Université de Sherbrooke research professors Dr. Paul Charette, senior researcher Serge Charlebois, Luc Fréchette and Dominique Drouin worked in partnership with Teledyne DALSA Semiconductor Incorporated as well as with three researchers at École Polytechnique de Montréal to achieve an innovative low cost manufacturing process. In recognition of their achievement, the Large-Scale Infrared Imaging Sensors Project has just been awarded the NSERC Synergy Award for Innovation – Small and Medium-Sized Businesses by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
The project developed over 5 years, from 2013 to 2018, with a total budget of approximately $4 million in cash (and an equivalent amount in kind) from an NSERC RDC grant (Research and Cooperative Development), the MiQro Innovation Collaborative Center (C2MI), UdeS, Prompt-Québec, Mitacs, and industrial partner Teledyne DALSA.
The Synergy Awards for Innovation recognize research and development partnerships in natural sciences and engineering between universities and Canadian companies. The team led by Dr. Charette has identified significant challenges in terms of materials and microfabrication processes to greatly reduce production costs without sacrificing performance. This collaboration is an excellent example of the talent that NSERC is supporting to explore innovative research avenues and CRSNG.
First major project in industrial partnership with 3IT and C2MI
The largest public-private partnership project in the history of the University de Sherbrooke funded by NSERC’s RDC grant at the time of its launch, this project took shape thanks to the innovation chain connecting C2MI and the Interdisciplinary Institute of Technology (3IT). Indeed, the 3IT allows the important stage of development before commercialization, by promoting – thanks to its rapid prototyping facilities in small quantities – the experimentation of new microfabrication procedures.
“As for C2MI spaces, they are perfect for university-industry cohabitation. The place is dedicated to this collaboration. The two entities meet and work together, in real time,” says the principal researcher, Dr. Paul Charette. “C2MI’s mandate is to accelerate the commercialization of complex microsystems, particularly for innovations in public-private partnerships. This collaborative model is itself innovative, facilitates innovative approaches to IP management, and is an important step in the full chain of scientific innovation, from academic research to commercialization. The university culture and that of the company are different a priori. But what is interesting about such a project is that it has contributed to moving the two philosophies towards a common place, thanks, among other things, to communication, to continuous adjustments on both sides and to interests that came together.”
High-level technical challenge: challenge raised!
To achieve high performance without having to be cooled, these MEMS chips, called microbolometers, must be encapsulated under vacuum, a normally very expensive process. The keystone to achieve economies of scale to sufficiently reduce production costs and thus reach the civilian markets is the hermetic vacuum encapsulation of all chips simultaneously on a single slice (hermetic wafer-level packaging). At the launch of the project in 2013, no manufacturer of IR cameras in the world was capable of this technological and scientific tour de force for 200 mm silicon wafers.
“The encapsulation of chips is a determining factor in reducing costs. The extremely high costs incurred by the current manufacturers are directly attributable to the need to encapsulate the chips individually. The central innovation of the project lies precisely in the fact that we have developed the technology required to encapsulate them under vacuum simultaneously on the same 200 mm slice. We had to review the entire production line,” explained Dr. Charrette. “The team pushed to the extreme the science of materials and microfabrication.”
“This thermal camera development project marked a turning point for Teledyne DALSA on several levels. At the technological level, this project has allowed us to make significant progress at a pace that would not have been possible without this collaboration with both universities. The fact of bringing together specialized personnel from different backgrounds and working in complementary sectors has made possible real innovations that have led to the development of technologies and products that are truly differentiated in the market as much by their performance as by their manufacturing cost. . At the level of innovation capacity, this project paved the way for a new research and development approach at Teledyne DALSA. In fact, since the successes of this project, we have adapted our internal structure to base our future developments more and more on the same collaborative approach with universities,” added Claude Jean, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Teledyne DALSA.
Synergy for success: a model to follow
A major project that puts into action a coherent, dynamic and flexible network of more than fifty people – researchers, students, industrial staff – is more than a success. We are talking about 30 students who were trained in graduate studies for this project, many of whom were hired by the partner after their studies.
“By the end of the project, students could no longer be distinguished from industry professionals. At first, as academics, we had to be aware of the economic issues of the industrial partner while, for their part, they were able to open up to our expertise focused on a longer term strategic horizon. In short, we had to earn their trust. But the result has been incredible. It is precisely our complementarities of expertise that have made it possible to overcome challenges at levels of scientific complexity and technological integration that are rarely achieved in a public-private partnership. With goodwill and competence, we achieve extraordinary results,” concludes Dr. Charette. “And finally, just note that Teledyne DALSA has already received significant sensor orders from one of the world’s leading manufacturers of thermal imaging cameras that do not have the technology to make these sensors themselves.”
Synergy Award for Innovation
Interdisciplinary Institute for Technological Innovation – 3IT
Vicky Gauthier, Communication Officer
Faculté de génie | Université de Sherbrooke
819 821-8000, poste 63151 | Vicky.Gauthier@USherbrooke.ca
Isabelle Huard, Media Relations Officer
Communications Department | Université de Sherbrooke 819-821-8000, extension 63395 | medias@USherbrooke.ca