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Microsyst Technol (2012) 18:325332

DOI 10.1007/s00542-011-1393-9


A three-axis SOI accelerometer sensing with both in-plane

and vertical comb electrodes
Jin Xie Rahul Agarwal Youhe Liu

Julius Minglin Tsai

Received: 10 September 2011 / Accepted: 1 December 2011 / Published online: 15 December 2011
Springer-Verlag 2011

Abstract A three-axis capacitive accelerometer based on Dong et al. 2005). The use of SOI wafers in implementing
silicon-on-insulator is designed and fabricated. In the capacitive accelerometers has various advantages such as
accelerometer, totally eight groups of capacitors are com- superior material properties of a single crystal material,
pactly arranged around an octagonal proof mass. The four easily achieved high-aspect-ratio microstructures, good
groups of capacitors along orthogonal direction with mechanical stability, less residual stress and simple fabri-
in-plane comb electrodes detect XY acceleration, while the cation processes. Meanwhile, accelerometers based on thick
other four groups of capacitors along diagonal direction with SOI substrate have heavy proof mass and thus low Brownian
vertical comb electrodes detect Z acceleration. Measure- noise floor. Interdigitated in-plane comb electrodes are
ments of in-plane and vertical motion by the respective mostly used to detect in-plane acceleration. For out-of-plane
in-plane and vertical comb electrodes enable direct detection accelerometer, it remains a challenge to realize Z-axis dif-
for all the three axes with differential capacitive sensing ferential capacitive electrodes for monolithic integration of
scheme. For the fabricated accelerometer in the size of three-axis accelerometer on the SOI wafer. Matsumoto et al.
4 9 4 mm2, the capacitance sensitivities of in-plane and out- (1999) demonstrated an SOI three-axis capacitive acceler-
of-plane accelerometers are 145.3 and 9.1 fF/g, respectively. ometer, in which the whole handle layer was used as the
bottom electrode of the Z accelerometer, but the handle layer
also formed an unwanted capacitor with the in-plane comb
1 Introduction fingers, which caused large parasitic capacitance. Further-
more, the differential capacitive sensing was not available in
Compared to piezoelectric and thermal accelerometers, their Z-axis accelerometer. Hsu et al. (2009) presented a SOI
capacitive accelerometers are more popular for applications Z-axis differential capacitive accelerometer, where the small
on automotive and consumer electronics due to their high sensing gap between the capacitor plates of device layer and
sensitivity, good temperature performance, low cost and handle layer was created by removing buried oxide of SOI
easy integration with CMOS (Xie et al. 2008). Accelerom- wafer. The electrical interconnection was realized by man-
eters based on bulk micromachining, especially on silicon- ually dispensing silver paste between device and handle
on-insulator (SOI) wafers, have been widely developed silicon layers, which made the design difficult to be applied
(Brosnihan et al. 1997; Chen et al. 2005; Xie et al. 2011; in batch fabrication. Hsu et al. (2010) fabricated a silicon-on-
glass (SOG) three-axis accelerometer, in which the authors
integrated in-plane and out-of-plane accelerometers into a
J. Xie  R. Agarwal  Y. Liu  J. M. Tsai
single sensing structure to achieve small size, and made the
Institute of Microelectronics, A*STAR (Agency for Science,
Technology and Research), 11 Science Park Road, unbalanced proof mass as the outer frame of the in-plane
Singapore 117685, Singapore accelerometers to enhance the output of Z-axis sensing.
Vertical comb electrodes, which are composed of high and
J. Xie (&)
low comb fingers, were utilized to detect Z-axis acceleration
Mechanical Engineering Department, Berkeley Sensor and
Actuator Center, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA on SOI wafer with differential capacitive scheme by Tsuchiya
e-mail:; and Funabashi (2004) and Hamaguchi et al. (2007). But in

326 Microsyst Technol (2012) 18:325332

their three-axis accelerometers, both the out-of-plane and comb and stationary comb is not even (d1 6 d2 ) in the
in-plane motions were detected by the same group of in-plane comb electrodes. The other four groups of capacitors
vertical comb electrodes, so the sensitivity must be (CA , CB , CC and CD ) along diagonal direction are vertical
decoupled for each of the three axes, and consequently the comb electrodes and detect Z acceleration. To realize dif-
capacitive sensitivities for all the three axes were reduced. ferential capacitive sensing scheme in Z-axis, in CA and CB ,
In this paper, we presents an improved three-axis the moving electrodes are lower than the stationary elec-
capacitive SOI accelerometer which detects acceleration trodes, while in CC and CD , the moving electrodes are
with both in-plane and vertical comb electrodes. In the higher. Different from the designs by Tsuchiya and Fun-
accelerometer, totally eight groups of capacitors are abashi (2004) and Hamaguchi et al. (2007), the vertical
compactly arranged around an octagonal proof mass. comb electrodes of the presented accelerometer have even
XY acceleration is detected by the four groups of capacitors gaps (d0 ) between the moving and stationary fingers, which
along orthogonal direction with in-plane comb electrodes, helps minimize zero-g offset when modulation voltage is
while Z acceleration is detected by the other four groups of applied to the capacitors.
capacitors with vertical comb electrodes. In-plane and out- For a capacitor plate, the capacitance and its change
of-plane accelerations are measured by the respective in- against small displacement are written as:
plane and vertical comb electrodes, which enables direct
detection for all the three axes with differential capacitive lh h l lh
Ce ; DC e Dl e Dh  e 2 Dd 1
sensing scheme and thus high sensitivity. d d d d
where e is dielectric constant, and l, h and d are length,
2 Design and simulation height and gap of electrode, respectively. The capacitance
changes of XY in-plane accelerometer are derived as:
The presented SOI accelerometer consists of two pairs of  
1 1
folded springs with a common octagonal proof mass in the DCx Cx1  Cx2 DCx1  DCx2 2elh 2  2 Dx
d1 d2
center, as shown in Fig 1. There are totally eight groups of
capacitors connected with the octagonal proof mass. The 2
four groups of capacitors (Cx1 , Cx2 , Cy1 and Cy2 ) along 1 1
orthogonal direction are in-plane comb electrodes and DCy Cy1  Cy2 DCy1  DCy2 2elh  Dy
d12 d22
detect XY acceleration. Cx1 and Cx2 are one pair of differ-
ential capacitors for X accelerometer, and Cy1 and Cy2 the
other pair of differential capacitors for Y accelerometer. To Z-axis acceleration is measured by vertical comb electrodes
achieve high capacitive sensitivity, the gap between moving in differential scheme by decomposing capacitance of CA , CB ,

Fig. 1 Schematic view of the

presented three-axis

Microsyst Technol (2012) 18:325332 327

CC and CD . For convenient discussion, we consider ab DCC DCD 0 9

coordinate system, which is 45o apart from XY coordinate
system. When the displacement is along positive direction When the proof mass vibrates in both positive and
of abZ axes, we have the following equations negative directions, capacitance change is only determined
(Hamaguchi et al. 2007): by displacement along Z-axis, as shown in the following
lh lh l
DCA e 2
Da  e 2 Da 0 4 DCz CA CB  CC CD 4e Dz 10
d0 d0 d0
lh lh
DCB e 2
Da  e 2 Da 0 5 As indicated in the Equations of (2), (3) and (10), DCx ,
d0 d0
DCy and DCz only rely on the displacements of Dx, Dy and
l lh l lh Dz, so there is ideally no cross-sensitivity between each
DCC e Dz  e 2 Db e Dz  e 2 Db
d0 d0 d0 d0 two axes.
l The finite element analysis (FEA) was done in Coven-
2e Dz 6 torWare 2010, and the finite element models are shown in
Fig. 2. To avoid extremely long simulation time, the per-
l lh l lh forating holes in the proof mass are ignored in the model,
DCD e Dz  e 2 Db e Dz  e 2 Db
d0 d0 d0 d0 and the weight of proof mass is compensated through
l changing the density of proof mass. The design parameters
2e Dz 7
d0 and simulated results are summarized in Table 1. In the
presented accelerometer, squeeze damping is dominant
Similarly, if the displacement is along the negative
over the slide-film damping. For in-plane motion, the
direction, we have
squeeze damping occurs when the movable electrodes
l moves towards the stationary electrodes, while for out-of-
DCA DCB 2e Dz 8
d0 plane motion, the squeeze damping is from the gap change

Fig. 2 FEA models for a accelerometer b in-plane and c, d vertical electrodes

328 Microsyst Technol (2012) 18:325332

Table 1 Design parameters and simulated results of the accelerometer Mx0

Q 11
Parameter X and Y axes Z-axis D
Sensing area (mm) 494 f 12
Proof mass weight (kg) 3.1 9 10-7
Spring constant (N/m) 20.6 39.1 where Q is quality factor, M is the proof mass, D is the
Resonant frequency (Hz) 1,189 1,635 damping coefficient, f is the damping ratio, the quality
Electrode height (lm) 50 50/25 factor Q for in-plane vibration is 0.45 and damping ratio f
Electrode length (lm) 160 is 1.1, which means that the in-plane vibration is over
Electrode gap (lm) 2/5 3.5 damped. With the same simulation procedure, the damping
No. of electrodes 140 320 ratio f for the out-of-plane accelerometer is 0.9, which
Static capacitance (pF) 5.9 3.2 means that the out-of-plane vibration is also over damped.
Capacitance sensitivity (fF/g) 160.0 12.0
Damping ratio 1.1 0.9
3 Fabrication

The accelerometer is fabricated in a SOI wafer with 50 lm

thick device layer, and the process flow is shown in Fig. 3.
between the proof mass and the substrate. The simulation The SOI is p-type boron doped with resistivity of
of damping is conducted in the Damping MM solver of 0.01 X cm. Firstly, 0.7 lm aluminium is deposited by
CoventorWare 2010. For each pair of comb fingers in in- sputtering and patterned as pads for wire bonding. Sec-
plane electrodes, damping coefficient is 2.97 9 10-5. ondly, 1 lm SiO2 is deposited by plasma-enhanced
Totally there are 140 pairs of in-plane comb fingers, so the chemical vapor deposition (PECVD) and patterned as hard
squeeze damping coefficient caused by in-plane motion is mask to define the structure, and 4 lm thick photoresist is
4.17 9 10-3. The squeeze damping from the 320 pairs of used as the second mask to form the vertical comb elec-
vertical comb electrodes is 0.84 9 10-3. According to the trodes with self-alignment technology, as shown in steps 3
following equations: and 4. In the first deep reactive-ion etching (DRIE), the

Fig. 3 Fabrication process flow

for the accelerometer with
vertical electrodes

Microsyst Technol (2012) 18:325332 329

silicon etching depth is 25 lm. After photoresist stripping, octagonal proof mass is located in the center, and sensing
the second DRIE is done to etch the remaining 25 lm capacitors and springs are arranged around each side of the
silicon. Finally, the device is released in vapor hydrofluoric proof mass: four groups of in-plane electrodes, as well as
acid (HF). Different from buffered hydrofluoric acid (BHF) four pairs of spring are along the orthogonal direction, and
wet etchant, vapor HF does not attack aluminum pads, and four groups of vertical electrodes along the triangle direction.
the structures are released without stiction. The released proof mass is shown in Fig. 5. Figure 6 shows
The fabricated accelerometer in the size of 4 9 4 mm2 the cross section of the vertical electrodes. The cross sec-
is shown in Fig. 4. The proof mass, springs, in-plane combs tion is obtained by cutting a normal silicon wafer, which is
and vertical combs were successfully fabricated. In the processed with the same conditions as SOI wafer. The
vertical comb electrodes, the lower electrodes are shown higher electrode is 50 lm while the lower electrode is
with very shallow gray color because they are out of focus 25 lm. The sidewall of the electrode is not perfectly
by 25 lm when observed in optical microscope. The vertical, which makes the gap not uniform. The reason is
that after second step of DRIE, one more cycle of isotropic
etching is added to remove needle-like residue at the edges
of the lower height electrodes, as shown in Fig. 7. The
needle-like residue in the vertical electrodes may have been
caused in the following process: the sidewall formed by the
first DRIE is quickly passivated at the beginning of the

Fig. 4 The fabricated three-axis accelerometer Fig. 5 Device on SOI wafer is successfully released in vapor HF

Fig. 6 Vertical electrodes in the fabricated accelerometer

330 Microsyst Technol (2012) 18:325332

second DRIE; these passivation reagents may act as the The capacitive signal from the accelerometer under testing
mask for second DRIE, which causes the formation of is converted to voltage by using a commercial universal
needle-shaped residue (Tsuchiya and Funabashi 2004). To capacitive readout IC (MS3110 by Irvine Sensors Cor-
remove the needle-like residue, one more cycle of isotropic poration, USA), which has a low capacitive noise of
etching is added after second DRIE. However, the extra 4aF Hz. The input acceleration is monitored by a ref-
cycle of isotropic etching causes silicon loss of the lower erence commercial accelerometer (ADI ADXL335), which
electrodes, which makes the top side of the electrode a little is mounted together with the accelerometer under testing,
smaller than the bottom side, as shown in Fig. 6b, and as shown in Fig. 9. The output voltage in the time domain
results in a reduced sensitivity. is displaced and recorded by an oscilloscope, and the fre-
quency response is measured by a dynamic system ana-
lyzer. In the range of 3 g, the sensitivity is 290.6 mV/g
4 Testing for the in-plane axis (X or Y), while only 18.2 mV/g for the
out-of-plane axis (Z), as shown in Fig. 10. With 2 V/pF
The block diagram of testing setup for characterization of gain of the MS3110 readout IC, we know that the capaci-
the fabricated accelerometer is shown in Fig. 8. A shaker, tance sensitivities for in-plane and out-of-plane acceler-
a function generator and a power amplifier are used to ometer are 145.3 and 9.1 fF/g, respectively. Due to silicon
provide a base motion to excite the packaged accelerometer. undercut by DRIE, the actual gap of the comb fingers is
larger than the values used in simulation, which makes the
measured sensitivity lower than the simulated value.
However, compared with the sensitivity of Z-axis reported
in the previously published works, i.e. 1.14 (Tsuchiya and
Funabashi 2004) and 1.3 fF/g (Hamaguchi et al. 2007), the

Fig. 7 Needle-like residue in the vertical electrodes Fig. 8 Block diagram of the test setup

Fig. 9 Accelerometer under

testing, capacitive readout IC
and commercial reference

Microsyst Technol (2012) 18:325332 331

Table 2 The measured performance of the fabricated accelerometer

Parameter In-plane Out-of-plane
axes (X or Y) axis (Z)

Resonant frequency (Hz) 1,160 1,676

Bandwidth (Hz) 60 80
Voltage sensitivity (mV/g) 290.6 18.2
Capacitance sensitivity (fF/g) 145.3 9.1
Static sensing capacitance (pF) 5.5 2.7
Nonlinearity (%) 0.5 2.3

line to the full scale output, is measured as 0.5% for the in-
Fig. 10 Sensitivity of the fabricated three-axis accelerometer plane accelerometer, and 2.3% for the out-of-plane
accelerometer. The large nonlinearity of out-of-plane
accelerometer is down to the poor profile of the vertical
electrodes. The frequency response is measured by
sweeping sine signal from 10 to 3,000 Hz, as presented in
Fig. 11. The resonant frequency for the in-plane acceler-
ometer is 1,160 Hz, and for the out-of-plane accelerometer
1,676 Hz. Both the measured resonant frequencies are
lower than the simulation results. The possible reason is
the undercut during the DRIE etching which reduces the
spring constant. With the roll-off frequency set in the low
pass filter of the readout IC, the -3 dB frequency occurs at
60 Hz for in-plane accelerometer and 80 Hz for out-of-
plane accelerometer. Table 2 summarizes the measured
performance for the fabricated accelerometer.

5 Conclusions

A differential capacitive three-axis SOI accelerometer is

designed and fabricated. The proof mass of the presented
accelerometer is octagonal shape, and eight groups of
capacitors are arranged around each side of the proof mass
to achieve a compact design. XY acceleration is detected by
four groups of in-plane comb electrodes along orthogonal
direction, while Z acceleration is detected by the other four
groups of vertical comb electrodes along the triangle
direction. The vertical comb electrodes are fabricated by
micromachining with double layer masks with time-
controlled DRIE process to realize different heights of the
comb fingers. Differential capacitive sensing scheme of all
the three axes allows us to accurately measure linear
capacitance change against input acceleration. The size of
the fabricated accelerometer is 4 9 4 mm2 and the mea-
Fig. 11 Frequency response for the fabricated accelerometer sured sensitivities of in-plane axis and out-of-plane axis are
145.3 and 9.1 fF/g, respectively.
Z-axis sensitivity of the presented accelerometer has
been greatly improved. The nonlinearity, which is defined Acknowledgments The authors would like to thank Pavel Neuzil
as the ratio of the maximum deviation from the best fit for his support on layout of mask.

332 Microsyst Technol (2012) 18:325332

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