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Charge Coupled Devices (CCDs): The Workhorses of Modern Electronic Imaging



Shivaprasad M Khened, Curator, Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai


From the incredible pictures of the outer space taken by the Hubble Space
Telescope, to the digital images generated by the modern professional photographers,
all use an invincible technological spectacle, the Charge Coupled Device, CCD for short.
Rapid developments that have seen the light of the day in the ever developing
microelectronic technology have presented humankind with newfound opportunities for a
hitherto unknown view of the heavens, and that too with an unprecedented sensitivity.
The CCDs are an integral part of every modern electronic digital imaging device and are
woven into the very fabric of these devices, which encompass every perceivable modern
day imaging application. CCDs have been used in wide applications ranging from the
studio camera work and motion picture industry to the law enforcement and X-ray film
scanning. CCDs have also been used for exploration of the universe and earth and
everything in between. Cockpit displays and aerial photography are some other
applications that use a wide spectrum of digital electronic imaging. To sum it all CCDs
are inextricably linked to the modern day electronic imaging devices that are used in
providing extraordinary electronic imaging solutions for virtually every modern imaging

Need for CCDs

The significance of the CCDs can be measured by understanding the capabilities

of our eyes as a source of light detectors. The eye in fact is a very good light detector,
perfectly tailored to its everyday uses, but it has its limitations especially for astronomical
studies. Its efficiency can be as high as a few percent, which is respectable even when
compared with some of the light detecting devices. However the eye responds only to a
limited range of colours. Radiations in the neighbouring ultraviolet and infrared regions of
the electromagnetic spectrum are invisible to the naked eye. Eye is also a poor judge of
absolute brightness. It cannot store light for more than a few tenths of a second. The eye
therefore has proved to be an ineffective imaging tool for satisfying the unending quest
of humankind to understand the vast expanse of nature and to try and unravel its
mysteries. It was this necessity that has led to the invention of the modern
microelectronic wonder marvel, the Charge Coupled Device. The CCD is a light-
sensitive integrated circuit used in a wide variety of applications, primarily in imaging.
Advances in solid-state physics led to the invention of CCD technology, which now
serves science from the bottom of the ocean to outer space.

CCD and Digital Cameras

Digital cameras are now the most sought after devices that have revolutionized
the photographic industry. Just as any other modern electronic gadgets, the digital
cameras are also becoming cheaper and cheaper and have followed a path of other
electronic gadgets of remaining anti inflationary while at the same time offering more and
more features. The popularity of the digital cameras has reached a new zenith. The
ability to take hundreds or even thousands of pictures without having to worry about film
and developing costs and the ability to send these pictures by email to friends, family
and business contacts all over the world, are just some of the many reasons why digital
cameras are becoming more and more popular. While many digital cameras look like
traditional point-and-shoot film cameras, what’s inside is quite different and the main
difference is the presence of the ubiquitous CCD.

Digital cameras produce high quality digital images that are captured using
special light sensitive Charge Coupled Device integrated circuits. Digital cameras can
contain many thousands or even millions of these microscopically small light sensitive
elements. One or more of these elements are considered to represent a single point of
light, or pixel. Light falling on a CCD causes a minute electrical charge, proportional to
the brightness of the light, to be held within each element. Absence of any charge
corresponds to black, and a presence of full charge to white. Depending on the charge
content the nature of the colour can be interpreted by analyzing the charge produced
from these devices. Each element in the CCD holds an analog signal (since there are
infinite variations between no charge and full charge). To convert each charge to its
digital equivalent, an analog-to-digital converter is used which divides the range of
charges into a discrete number of stages or steps to which the charge may be
approximated. If the converter has allowed 8-bits to store the charge of each pixel
digitally, 256 discrete levels of brightness can be described (2 raised to the power 8).
Some systems devote more bits to each pixel, allowing for more brightness levels and
therefore smoother gradation between levels. Higher the bits the system uses the better
are the gradations between the levels in the brightness and there fore a better resolution
will be the result.

The beginning of CCD

The seeds for the utility of the concept of usage of the CCD lay in another device
the Bucket Bridge Device. In 1969 F.Sangster and K.Teer of the Philips Research Labs
invented the Bucket-Brigade Device or BBD. The function of this device was to transfer a
charge packet from one transistor to another. One year later, Willard Boyle and George.
Smith of the Bell Laboratories extended this concept by inventing a transport mechanism
from one capacitor to another one. This new device got the name Charge Coupled
Device or simply CCD for short. George Smith worked at Bell Labs from 1959 to 1986.
For much of this time, he led research aimed at creating novel lasers and other
semiconductor devices. Willard Boyle was at Bell Labs from 1953 to 1979. He worked on
the research in optical and satellite communications, digital and quantum electronics,
computing, and radio astronomy; he also helped NASA choose a site for the Apollo
landing on the moon. Willard Boyle and George. Smith have been honored for their
accomplishment of the invention of CCDs with the C&C Prize, one of the world's top
honours in computing and communications. The prize, awarded by the nonprofit
Foundation for C&C Promotion in Japan, was established in 1985 by the NEC
Corporation to honour individuals who have made major contributions to the
development of the global electronics industry. In his award acceptance speech Smith
said "It is extremely satisfying to have a thirty-year old accomplishment recognized as
being significant". His co inventor Boyle said “I am always surprised when I hear of a
new application for the CCD. It has become an ubiquitous device in such diverse areas
as cosmology and internal medicine.”
Most common applications of the CCD in modern days are its utility in the
cameras. Interestingly though, the CCDs were not intended to be used in the electronic
imagery when they were invented. These devices were conceptualized and developed to
replace the conventional costly memory devices of the time and to combat the ever-
growing problems of the memory devices for the early versions of the computers. The
main inspiration for Smith and Boyle was the challenge of creating a new kind of
semiconductor memory for computers, which could store more memory in smaller space
and cost less. Memory its cost and limitation were the main concern for the computer
industry in its infancy. There was another challenge facing the electronic industry that of
developing a technology for the video telephone service, which required solid-state
cameras. In the space of an hour on October 17, 1969, Smith and Boyle while working at
the Bell labs sketched out the CCD's basic structure, defined its principles of operation,
and outlined its applications concentrating however on the memory part. The device
they invented stores information, represented by discrete packets of electric charge, in
columns of closely spaced semiconductor capacitors. With multiple columns side by
side, a CCD chip can record images. Reading out the information - for processing,
display, or more permanent storage - is accomplished by shifting stored charges down
the columns, one position at a time. The CCD's sensitivity to light, coupled to this
method of storing and reading out information, makes it a versatile and robust optical
detector. By 1970, the Bell Labs researchers had built the CCD into the world's first
solid-state video camera. In 1975, they demonstrated the first CCD camera with an
image quality sharp enough for broadcast television.

Omnipresence of CCDs

Talking about the significance of the invention of CCDs, at Bell Labs, Arun
Netravali, executive vice president of research at Bell Labs, who shared a 1997 C&C
Prize for his contributions in digital image and video compression said, "The story of the
CCD highlights two beautiful aspects of research, one is the possibility that you may, in
the process of solving today's problem, create something unexpected that will have a
huge impact in the future. The other is the extent to which frontier science and frontier
technologies depend on each other. Advances in solid-state physics led to the invention
of CCD technology, which now serves science from the bottom of the ocean to outer

Though CCD were initially designed to serve as a memory device in computers,

they soon became a good candidate for immense other applications, prominent among
them all, was their utility in photography. Since the CCD chip was sensitive to light and
the content of the charge depended directly on the nature of the light falling on these
devices, inference were soon drawn that they could be used as good image sensors.
The first to recognize the potential of the CCD for producing high quality scientific
images were the astronomers who foresaw their quest for understanding the vast
universe being fulfilled from the use of these devices in their telescopes. The CCD it was
soon realized had a significantly higher sensitivity than photographic film and the then
prevalent vidicon tube devices. With sensitivity as high as 100 times greater than the
photographic films, the CCD soon displaced other sensors within a few years of its
invention. In the history of physics the invention of new or better equipment usually
causes a cascading affect which lead to other discoveries. The same was true for the
invention of the CCD as well. Soon, CCD found their use for discovering previously
invisible objects and thus increasing our knowledge and understanding of the vast and
unending expanse of the universe. Based on new data, theoretical models could be
verified or were newly developed.

Today, CCD technology is all encompassing and has found its use not only in
astronomy and broadcasting, but also in, video applications that range from security
monitoring to high-definition television (HDTV), and from endoscopies to desktop
videoconferencing. Facsimile machines, copying machines, image scanners, digital still
cameras, and bar code readers have employed CCDs to turn patterns of light into useful
information. State-of-the-art CCDs can make sense out of light trickling in at rates as low
as one photon per minute. Their efficiency as detectors and their sensitivity across a
wide band of wavelengths - together with the light weight, low power consumption, high
stability, and long life they share with other microchips - have made CCDs omnipresent
in all modern day imaging devices. Some of the latest applications of CCDs include the
Vic Nalwa's 360-degree camera, called the Full Circle camera by Lucent. Other recent
applications of CCDs include their use by Tony Tyson and colleagues to map the
distribution of dark matter in the universe.

CCDs in astronomical observations

Since 1983, when telescopes were first outfitted with solid-state cameras, CCDs
have enabled astronomers to study objects thousands of times fainter than what the
most sensitive photographic plates could capture, and to image in seconds what would
have taken hours before. Today all optical observatories, including the Hubble Space
Telescope, rely on digital information systems built around "mosaics" of ultra sensitive
CCD chips. Researchers in other fields have put CCDs to work in applications as diverse
as observing chemical reactions in the lab and studying the feeble light emitted by hot
water gushing out of vents in the ocean floor. CCD cameras also are used in satellite
observation of the earth for environmental monitoring, surveying, and surveillance.

CCD Chips

The CCD chip is an array of Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor capacitors (MOS

capacitors) each capacitor represents a pixel. By applying an external voltage to the top
plates of the MOS structure, charges (electrons (e-) or holes (h+)) can be stored in the
resulting potential well. These charges can be shifted from one pixel to another pixel by
digital pulses applied to the top plates (gates). In this way the charges can be transferred
row by row to a serial output register, which could be analysed for producing the desired
output. The resulting picture produced from the serial output registers is the display of
the electron charge distribution. CCD can be used as a light sensor for cameras, since
electrons can be optically generated or more precisely excited from the valence in the
conduction band, the Cameras where the light penetrates through the gate structure to
reach the region where electrons are collected are called front-illuminated. More
sophisticated in the production, but with a higher sensitivity, are cameras where the CCD
chip is exposed from the opposite side. These cameras are called back-illuminated. To
insure charge transport from the back to the front side where the electrons are collected,
the silicon bulk is thinned.
How do charge couple devices (CCDs) work?

A CCD is nothing but a semiconductor like device with one of its face sensitive to
the incident light. The light sensitive face is rectangular in shape and subdivided into a
grid of discrete rectangular areas called the picture elements or pixels, each about 10-30
micron across. The CCD is placed in the focal plane of an imaging device so that the
light-sensitive surface is illuminated and an image of the object being viewed is formed
on it. The light falling on the pixel, in the form of a photon, generates a small electrical
charge, which is stored for later read-out and interpretation. The quantity of charge
generated by the CCD depends directly illumination level with brighter illumination
producing greater charge and vice versa. The CCD pixel grids are usually square and
the number of pixels on each side varies from a minimum of 64x64 elements to a high of
2048x2048 elements. The pixel grids are formed to comply with the binary system
format, which forms the basis for any digital electronics. During the early period of the
introduction of the CCD in the 1970s, 64x64 elements were used in the grid. The 1980s
adopted an improved 256x256 or 512x512 element chips in the grid matrix. The modern
day imaging devices commonly use 1024x1024 or 2048x2048 element chips. A CCD in
isolation is just a semiconductor chip. In order to turn it into a usable imaging device it
needs to be connected to an electronics circuitry to power it, control it, read it and
interpret it. By using a few clocking circuits, an amplifier and a fast analogue-to-digital
converter (ADC), usually of 16-bit accuracy, it is possible to estimate the amount of light
that has fallen onto each pixel by examining the amount of charge it has stored. Thus,
the charge stored in each of the pixels is converted by the electronic circuitry into
numbers. These numbers are expressed as Analogue data units (ADUs). ADUs are not
yet calibrated into physical units. The Analogue data Converter (ADC) factor is the
constant of proportionality to convert ADUs into the amount of charge (expressed as a
number of electrons) stored in each pixel. This factor is needed during the data reduction
and is usually included in the documentation for the instrument. The chip will usually be
placed in an insulating flask and cooled (often with liquid nitrogen) to reduce the noise
level. The electronics controlling the CCD chip are interfaced to a computer, which in
turn controls them. Thus, the images observed by the CCD are transferred directly to
computer memory, with no intermediate analogue stage, and thus they can be directly
plotted on an image display device or stored directly in any of the computer memory

Anatomy of CCD
The average CCD consists of three sections namely, photo diodes, shift gates
and solid-state capacitors. Arrays of photo diodes are positioned at the output of the
prism. As varying amounts of light strike the diodes, those that are illuminated become
"forward biased", and a current flows that is proportional to the intensity of the light. The
shift gate acts as a switch. This permits the current from each diode to be stored in a
solid-state capacitor in the CCD. The CCD analog shift register deals with the charges
coming from the capacitors. Each of these registers has an address decoder that allows
each portion of the image to be individually addressed. An address encoder cycles
through the field of photosensitive registers, and reads out the analog voltages for each
pixel. The speed of operation of this decoder is synchronized to the scan rate of
television. The CCD analog shift register actually performs two functions. First, all of the
shift gates can provide their light intensity signals at once. This is somewhat like a
camera shutter opening for a brief instant to let light pass through, and closing and
staying closed while the film is advanced. And the variable "shutter" control on a CCD
camera lets you perform high-speed video sampling - great for sporting events featuring
blur-free slow motion playbacks. Second, the serial reading of all of the CCD chip's
individual storage elements provides image scanning, somewhat automatically - no
electron beam required. The actual transfer of the voltages out to the real world is the
key to why CCDs are so ingenious. The CCD unit can transfer the voltage from cell to
cell without any loss. This is called charge coupling, which is how the CCD gets its
name: Charge Coupled Device. When the transfer gate of a CCD image sensor is
activated, the CCD's clocking circuitry moves the contents of each picture cell to the
adjacent cell. Clocking the shift registers in this manner transfers the light input value of
each cell to the output, one value at a time. The CCD chips provide their own scanning
circuitry, in a way. The last cell in the chain sends its voltage, in turn, to the output circuit
of the chip. As an added bonus, cycling through all of the cells this way will not only send
out all of the stored voltages, but also discharges all of the cells, too. Everything goes
back to normal and the cells are ready to take in a new analog voltage value.

Making of a CCD

The technique used in the making of the CCDs is the same as the one used in
making other silicon integrated chips: a piece of silicon is covered with a layer of
'photoresist'. Light is shone onto this photoresist through a mask, which maps out tracks
and various details to be incorporated onto the chip. The light does not affect areas of
photoresist that lie behind the mask, whereas, areas exposed, undergo a chemical
change. Washing this assembly with a developing chemical, removes the exposed
areas, and leaves the unexposed areas intact. It's a bit like producing a photograph with
the mask acting as the negative. A few further washings with various other chemicals
etch away the exposed silicon and leave the unexposed silicon intact. The intact silicon
forms the structure of the chip. Most chips have several layers built up in this way.


From humble beginnings as a compact and inexpensive means to delay video

signals, the charge-coupled device (CCD) has now encompassed every aspect of
modern digital imagery. It has traveled a long way in realizing the dream of developing a
solid-state imager which is rugged, possesses high sensitivity and image quality,
demand for little power, and has resistance to wearing out unlike the imaging tubes of
the past. CCD imagers have made tremendous strides in a short time. They are now
omnipresent in modern technological devices and equipments with wide and diverse
applications. In fact since the beginning of the recorded history of photography some
150 years before, the year 2003 was a landmark year, the number of digital cameras
sold during 2003 were more than the conventional film based cameras. The usage of
CCD in wide ranging application has continued unabated. Its applications will continue to
grow for years to come.