A charge-coupled device (CCD) is an analog shift register, that enables the transportation of analog signals (electric charges) through successive stages (capacitors) controlled by a clock signal. Charge-coupled devices can be used as a form of memory or for delaying samples of analog signals. Today, they are most widely used in arrays of photoelectric light sensors, to serialize parallel analog signals. Not all image sensors use CCD technology; for example, CMOS chips are also commercially available.
"CCD" refers to the way that the image signal is read out from the chip. Under the control of an external circuit, each capacitor can transfer its electric charge to one or other of its neighbours. CCDs are used in digital photography and astronomy (particularly in photometry), sensors, electron microscopy, medical fluoroscopy, optical and UV spectroscopy and high speed techniques such as lucky imaging.
In January 2006, Boyle and Smith were awarded the National Academy of Engineering Charles Stark Draper Prize for their work on the CCD.
An image is projected by a lens on the capacitor array (the photoactive region), causing each capacitor to accumulate an electric charge proportional to the light intensity at that location. A one-dimensional array, used in line-scan cameras, captures a single slice of the image, while a two-dimensional array, used in video and still cameras, captures a two-dimensional picture corresponding to the scene projected onto the focal plane of the sensor. Once the array has been exposed to the image, a control circuit causes each capacitor to transfer its contents to its neighbor. The last capacitor in the array dumps its charge into a charge amplifier, which converts the charge into a voltage. By repeating this process, the controlling circuit converts the entire semiconductor contents of the array to a sequence of voltages, which it samples, digitizes and stores in some form of memory.
The photoactive region of the CCD is, generally, an epitaxial layer of silicon. It has a doping of p+ (Boron) and is grown upon the substrate material, often p++. In buried channel devices, the type of design utilized in most modern CCDs, certain areas of the surface of the silicon are ion implanted with phosphorus, giving them an n-doped designation. This region defines the channel in which the photogenerated charge packets will travel. The gate oxide, i.e. the capacitor dielectric, is grown on top of the epitaxial layer and substrate. Later on in the process polysilicon gates are deposited by chemical vapor deposition, patterned with photolithography, and etched in such a way that the separately phased gates lie perpendicular to the channels. The channels are further defined by utilization of the LOCOS process to produce the channel stop region. Channel stops are thermally grown oxides that serve to isolate the charge packets in one column from those in another. These channel stops are produced before the polysilicon gates are, as the LOCOS process utilizes a high temperature step that would destroy the gate material. The channels stops are parallel to, and exclusive of, the channel, or "charge carrying", regions. Channel stops often have a p+ doped region underlying them, providing a further barrier to the electrons in the charge packets (this discussion of the physics of CCD devices assumes an electron transfer device, though hole transfer is possible).
One should note that the clocking of the gates, alternately high and low, will forward and reverse bias the diode that is provided by the buried channel (n-doped) and the epitaxial layer (p-doped). This will cause the CCD to deplete, near the p-n junction and will collect and move the charge packets beneath the gates – and within the channels – of the device.
It should be noted that CCD manufacturing and operation can be optimized for different uses. The above process describes a frame transfer CCD. While CCDs may be manufactured on a heavily doped p++ wafer it is also possible to manufacture a device inside p-wells that have been placed on an n-wafer. This second method, reportedly, reduces smear, dark current, and infrared and red response. This method of manufacture is used in the construction of interline transfer devices.
In a full-frame device, all of the image area is active and there is no electronic shutter. A mechanical shutter must be added to this type of sensor or the image will smear as the device is clocked or read out.
With a frame transfer CCD, half of the silicon area is covered by an opaque mask (typically aluminium). The image can be quickly transferred from the image area to the opaque area or storage region with acceptable smear of a few percent. That image can then be read out slowly from the storage region while a new image is integrating or exposing in the active area. Frame-transfer devices typically do not require a mechanical shutter and were a common architecture for early solid-state broadcast cameras. The downside to the frame-transfer architecture is that it requires twice the silicon real estate of an equivalent full-frame device; hence, it costs roughly twice as much.
The interline architecture extends this concept one step further and masks every other column of the image sensor for storage. In this device, only one pixel shift has to occur to transfer from image area to storage area; thus, shutter times can be less than a microsecond and smear is essentially eliminated. The advantage is not free, however, as the imaging area is now covered by opaque strips dropping the fill factor to approximately 50% and the effective quantum efficiency by an equivalent amount. Modern designs have addressed this deleterious characteristic by adding microlenses on the surface of the device to direct light away from the opaque regions and on the active area. Microlenses can bring the fill factor back up to 90% or more depending on pixel size and the overall system's optical design.
The choice of architecture comes down to one of utility. If the application cannot tolerate an expensive, failure prone, power hungry mechanical shutter, then an interline device is the right choice. Consumer snap-shot cameras have used interline devices. On the other hand, for those applications that require the best possible light collection and issues of money, power and time are less important, the full-frame device will be the right choice. Astronomers tend to prefer full-frame devices. The frame-transfer falls in between and was a common choice before the fill-factor issue of interline devices was addressed. Today, the choice of frame-transfer is usually made when an interline architecture is not available, such as in a back-illuminated device.
CCDs containing grids of pixels are used in digital cameras, optical scanners and video cameras as light-sensing devices. They commonly respond to 70% of the incident light (meaning a quantum efficiency of about 70%) making them far more efficient than photographic film, which captures only about 2% of the incident light.
Most common types of CCDs are sensitive to infrared light, which allows infrared photography, night-vision devices, and zero lux (or near zero lux) video-recording/photography. Because of their sensitivity to infrared, CCDs used in astronomy are usually cooled to liquid nitrogen temperatures, because infrared black body radiation is emitted from room-temperature sources. One other consequence of their sensitivity to infrared is that infrared from remote controls will often appear on CCD-based digital cameras or camcorders if they don't have infrared blockers. Cooling also reduces the array's dark current, improving the sensitivity of the CCD to low light intensities, even for ultraviolet and visible wavelengths.
Thermal noise, dark current, and cosmic rays may alter the pixels in the CCD array. To counter such effects, astronomers take an average of several exposures with the CCD shutter closed and opened. The average of images taken with the shutter closed is necessary to lower the random noise. Once developed, the “dark frame” average image is then subtracted from the open-shutter image to remove the dark current and other systematic defects in the CCD (dead pixels, hot pixels, etc.). The Hubble Space Telescope, in particular, has a highly developed series of steps (“data reduction pipeline”) used to convert the raw CCD data to useful images. See for a more in-depth description of the steps in processing astronomical CCD data.
CCD cameras used in astrophotography often require sturdy mounts to cope with vibrations and breezes, along with the tremendous weight of most imaging platforms. To take long exposures of galaxies and nebulae, many astronomers use a technique known as auto-guiding. Most autoguiders use a second CCD chip to monitor deviations during imaging. This chip can rapidly detect errors in tracking and command the mount's motors to correct for them.
An interesting unusual astronomical application of CCDs, called "drift-scanning", is to use a CCD to make a fixed telescope behave like a tracking telescope and follow the motion of the sky. The charges in the CCD are transferred and read in a direction parallel to the motion of the sky, and at the same speed. In this way, the telescope can image a larger region of the sky than its normal field of view. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey is the most famous example of this, using the technique to produce the largest uniform survey of the sky yet.
Digital color cameras generally use a Bayer mask over the CCD. Each square of four pixels has one filtered red, one blue, and two green (the human eye is more sensitive to green than either red or blue). The result of this is that luminance information is collected at every pixel, but the color resolution is lower than the luminance resolution.
Better color separation can be reached by three-CCD devices (3CCD) and a dichroic beam splitter prism, that splits the image into red, green and blue components. Each of the three CCDs is arranged to respond to a particular color. Some semi-professional digital video camcorders (and most professionals) use this technique. Another advantage of 3CCD over a Bayer mask device is higher quantum efficiency (and therefore higher light sensitivity for a given aperture size). This is because in a 3CCD device most of the light entering the aperture is captured by a sensor, while a Bayer mask absorbs a high proportion (about 2/3) of the light falling on each CCD pixel.
Since a very-high-resolution CCD chip is very expensive as of 2005, a 3CCD high-resolution still camera would be beyond the price range even of many professional photographers. There are some high-end still cameras that use a rotating color filter to achieve both color-fidelity and high-resolution. These multi-shot cameras are rare and can only photograph objects that are not moving.
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