SGS-Thomson Innovative System Design group at University of Bologna, ITALY

Designer: M. Tartagni

System & Interface Engineering: M. Bisio and R. Rambaldi

Pattern Recognition: Zs. V. Kovacs

Head: Prof. R. Guerrieri

On September 1996 we demonstrated the first working prototype of a microchip that can directly register the pattern of a human fingertip, detecting variations in the electrical field existing between ridges and valleys of the skin and sensor surface. Compared to other sensing approaches currently available, this technology offers superior greyscale image quality and a direct route to the digital information used in the personal identification process. We were able to overcome the difficult problem of sensing ultra-small capacitances thanks to the feedback capacitive sensing scheme (FCS) that we introduced.

In a technical paper presented at the 1997 International Solid State Circuit Conference in San Francisco has been reported a sensor array that 'grabs' a fingerprint pattern without using an optical or mechanical adaptor such as a scanner or camera. When the finger is placed onto the chip's silicon surface, the capacitive sensors register the fingerprint pattern by interacting with electric field variations produced by the skin's ridges and valleys. The chip then creates an electrical representation of a fingerprint. This offers a new dimension in the arena of biometrics. Some of the security applications for this electronic fingerprint imaging sensor include PC access, electronic security for internet transactions, physical identification for access to automobiles and buildings, Person Identification Number (PIN) replacement, as well as applications in the smartcard, appliance and portable electronics fields. A full paper regarding this sensor appeared on the January 1998 issue of the IEEE Journal of Solid State Circuits.

Compared to alternate personal identification methods such as infrared and retinal scans, the electronic fingerprint technology provides heightened security, ease-of-use and cost benefits. This compact one-chip solution is smaller in size and ultra-low power compared to optical methods, consuming less than 1mW at 5V. It also generates higher image quality than most other identification methods, including technologies based on heat. Since the chip's pixels are on a pitch of more than 25µm, it can be easily integrated into standard CMOS technology, the digital microprocessing common to desk top computers, to keep costs low.

Description of the design

The live fingerprint imager is based on a feedback capacitive sensing scheme. Two metal-2 plates are placed adjacently in the cell area and separated from the skin surface by the passivation oxide. The skin surface can be thought of as a third plate opposed to the metal-2 ones and separated by a dielectric layer with variable thickness composed of air.

From a lumped-model point of view, this structure realizes a two series-connected capacitors scheme. The metal-2 plates are separately connected to the input and out of a high-gain inverter, thus realizing a charge integrator.

The cell works in two phases: first, the charge amplifier is reset, shorting input and output of the inverter. During this phase, output of the inverter settles to its logical threshold. During the second phase, a fixed amount of charge is sinked from the input, causing an output voltage swing inversely proportional to feedback capacitance value. Since feedback capacitance in inversely proportional to the distance of the skin, a linear dependence of output voltage on skin distance is expected. For a fixed amount of sinked charge, the output voltage of the inverter will range between two extremes depending on feedback capacitance value: 1) the upper saturation level if no feedback capacitance is present; 2) a value close to the logical threshold when the feedback capacitance is large.

The current prototype is able to capture a fingerprint image at 390 dpi, enough to provide high-reliability fingerprint matching based on image processing algorithms. Future prototypes are expected to increase resolution to as much as 512 dpi.

Since the distance between the skin and sensor identifies the presence of ridges and valleys, an array of cells is used to sample the fingerprint pattern. An array of cells is addressed in a raster mode by means of horizontal and vertical scanners. The chip also contains timing control and voltage references.

Since the pixels are on a pitch of more than 25µm, the architecture is integrated in standard CMOS technology by SGS-Thomson. The power consumption at 10 frame/s is below 1mW for continous acquisition.

  • Fingerprint database
  • FAQs will be soon available

    MARCO TARTAGNI c/o DEIS Universita' di Bologna, Viale Risorgimento 2, I-40136 Bologna, ITALY, tel: +39-(51)-644-3557, fax: +39-(51)-644-3073



    ALAN KRAMER c/o SGS-Thomson Innovative Systems Design Group, 2115 Milvia st. Suite 301 Berkeley, CA, 94704-1112, USA; tel: +1-510-647-1200, fax: +1-510-665-9730


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    © 1997 SGS-Thomson Microelectronics