A superconducting focal plane array for
ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared
Benjamin A. Mazin,1∗Bruce Bumble,2Seth R. Meeker,1Kieran
O’Brien,1Sean McHugh,1and Eric Langman1
1Department of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA
2NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, California 91109, USA
proven to be a powerful cryogenic detector technology due to their sensi-
tivity and the ease with which they can be multiplexed into large arrays.
A MKID is an energy sensor based on a photon-variable superconducting
inductance in a lithographed microresonator, and is capable of functioning
as a photon detector across the electromagnetic spectrum as well as a
particle detector. Here we describe the first successful effort to create a
photon-counting, energy-resolving ultraviolet, optical, and near infrared
MKID focal plane array. These new Optical Lumped Element (OLE)
MKID arrays have significant advantages over semiconductor detectors
like charge coupled devices (CCDs). They can count individual photons
with essentially no false counts and determine the energy and arrival time
of every photon with good quantum efficiency. Their physical pixel size
and maximum count rate is well matched with large telescopes. These
capabilities enable powerful new astrophysical instruments usable from
the ground and space. MKIDs could eventually supplant semiconductor
detectors for most astronomical instrumentation, and will be useful for other
disciplines such as quantum optics and biological imaging.
Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors, or MKIDs, have
© 2011 Optical Society of America
OCIS codes: (040.1240) Detector Arrays; (350.1270) Astronomy and Astrophysics
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Cryogenic detectors are currently the preferred technology for astronomical observations over
most of the electromagnetic spectrum, notably in the far infrared through millimeter (0.1–
3 mm) [1, 2, 3], X-ray , and gamma-ray  wavelength ranges. In the important ultravi-
olet, optical, and near infrared (0.1–5 µm) wavelength range a variety of detector technologies
based on semiconductors, backed by large investment from both consumer and military cus-
tomers, has resulted in detectors for astronomy with large formats, high quantum efficiency,
and low readout noise. However, these detectors are fundamentally limited by the band gap of
the semiconductor (1.1 eV for silicon) and thermal noise sources from their high (∼100 K)
operating temperatures . Cryogenic detectors, with operating temperatures on the order of
100 mK, allow the use of superconductors with gap parameters over 1000 times lower than typ-
ical semiconductors. This difference allows new capabilities. A superconducting detector can
count single photons with no false counts while determining the energy (to several percent or
better) and arrival time (to a microsecond) of the photon. It can also have much broader wave-
length coverage since the photon energy is always much greater than the gap energy. While a
CCD is limited to about 0.3–1 µm, the new arrays described here are sensitive from 0.1 µm in
the UV to greater than 5 µm in the mid-IR, enabling observations at infrared wavelengths vital
to understanding the high redshift universe.
This approach has been pursued in the past with two technologies, Superconducting Tunnel
Junctions (STJs) [7, 8] and Transition Edge Sensors (TESs) [9, 10]. While both of these tech-
nologies produced functional detectors, they are limited to single pixels or small arrays due to
the lack of a credible strategy for wiring and multiplexing large numbers of detectors, although
recently there have been proposals for larger TES multiplexers .
Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors, or MKIDs, are an alternative cryogenic de-
tector technology that has proven important for millimeter wave astrophysics[13, 14] due to
their sensitivity and the ease with which they can be multiplexed into large arrays. MKIDs use
frequency domain multiplexing  that allows thousands of pixels to be read out over a single
microwave cable. While the largest STJ array is 120 pixels  and the largest optical TES
array is 36 pixels , the MKID arrays described below are 1024 pixels, with a clear path to
Megapixel arrays. The ability to easily reach large formats is the primary advantage of MKID
In this paper we describe the first photon-counting, energy-resolving ultraviolet, optical,
and near infrared MKID focal plane array. These Optical Lumped Element (OLE) MKID
arrays have significant advantages over semiconductor detectors like charge coupled devices
(CCDs) . They can count individual photons with essentially no false counts and determine
the energy and arrival time of every photon with good quantum efficiency. Their physical pixel
size and maximum count rate is well matched with large telescopes. These capabilities enable
powerful new astrophysical instruments usable from the ground and space.
2. Detector design and fabrication
MKIDs work on the principle that incident photons change the surface impedance of a su-
perconductor through the kinetic inductance effect . The kinetic inductance effect occurs
because energy can be stored in the supercurrent of a superconductor. Reversing the direction of
5.66 5.685.70 5.72 5.74
port 1 port 2
Fig. 1. Left: The basic operation of an MKID, from . (a) Photons with energy hν are ab-
sorbed in a superconducting film, producing a number of excitations, called quasiparticles.
(b) To sensitively measure these quasiparticles, the film is placed in a high frequency pla-
nar resonant circuit. The amplitude (c) and phase (d) of a microwave excitation signal sent
through the resonator. The change in the surface impedance of the film following a photon
absorption event pushes the resonance to lower frequency and changes its amplitude. If the
detector (resonator) is excited with a constant on-resonance microwave signal, the energy
of the absorbed photon can be determined by measuring the degree of phase and amplitude
shift. Right: The top panel shows the results the equivalent circuit of multiplexed MKIDs,
and the bottom panel shows microwave transmission data from actual MKIDs with very
accurate frequency spacing.
the supercurrent requires extracting the kinetic energy stored in the supercurrent, which yields
an extra inductance. This change can be accurately measured by placing this superconduct-
ing inductor in a lithographed resonator. A microwave probe signal is tuned near the resonant
frequency of the resonator, and any photons which are absorbed in the inductor will imprint
their signature as changes in phase and amplitude of the probe signal. Since the quality factor
Q of the resonators is high and their microwave transmission off resonance is nearly perfect,
multiplexing can be accomplished by tuning each pixel to a different resonant frequency with
lithography during device fabrication. This is accomplished by changing the total length of the
inductor with a “trombone section”, resulting in a lower inductance and therefore a higher res-
onant frequency. A comb of probe signals can be sent into the device, and room temperature
electronics can recover the changes in amplitude and phase without significant cross talk ,
as shown in Figure 1.
MKIDs are extremely versatile, as most resonators with a superconductor as the inductor will
function as a MKID. We have decided to pursue a lumped element resonator design , shown
in Figure 2. The resonator itself consists of a 20 nm thick sub-stoichiometric titanium nitride
(TiNx) film , with the nitrogen content tuned with x < 1 such that the superconducting
transition temperature Tcis about 800 mK. Due to the long penetration depth of these films
(∼1000 nm) the surface inductance is an extremely high 90 pH/square, allowing a very compact
resonator fitting in a 100×100 µm square. Due to bandwidth limitations of our electronics we
use two feedlines to read out the array, each serving 512 resonators. The resonators are designed
to be separated by 2 MHz within a 4–5 GHz band.
To avoid crosstalk between pixels the inductors are made with a double meander design that
Fig. 2. Left: A photograph of the 1024 pixel OLE MKID array with microlenses mounted
into a microwave package. The greyscale insets are scanning electron microscope (SEM)
images of the array to show the pixel design. The pixels are on a 100 µm pitch, with
slot widths inside the resonator of 0.5 µm. Right: A SEM of a OLE MKID pixel. The
microwave feedline runs down the middle, with ground straps shorting the finite ground
planes together. An L-shaped piece of niobium is connected to the center strip and enables
strong coupling of the resonator to the feedline. The resonant frequency is adjusted by
changing the length of a “trombone section”. The tapering is visible as the slow increase in
leg width with increasing distance from the feedline.
allows the electric field from the charge in each meander leg to be precisely cancelled by the
adjacent leg . The array is designed so that resonators close together in resonant frequency
are physically far apart. To improve the quantum efficiency of the device a 100 µm pitch cir-
cular microlens array is used to focus the incoming light on the inductor, since photons hitting
the capacitor or wiring will not be detected or will appear as photon events with an energy sig-
nificantly below their true energy. The circular microlenses used in these measurements limits
the effective fill factor to 67%. An improved lens with square lens elements could increase the
fill factor above 95%.
In order to achieve high energy resolution, the OLE MKID must have a uniform response
to photons hitting anywhere inside the spot produced by the microlens, which is expected to
have a wavelength dependent diameter of around 15 µm. The responsivity of an OLE MKID
depends on the current density in the meander leg at the location the photon is absorbed. Since
the capacitance of our resonator is small the current density changes by nearly a factor of two
over the length of the inductor. Diffusion does not even out the quasiparticle distribution since
the quasiparticle diffusion length in TiN is expected to be short (on the order of 10 µm). In
order to normalize the response we taper the width of each leg to give a uniform current density
in the last eight legs (the microlens target) based on electromagnetic simulations of the current
density using the SONNET software package, as shown in Figure 3. The widths of the legs vary
from 2.5–4 µm, while the slots are 0.5 µm.
Early prototypes used coplanar waveguide (CPW) or coplanar slotline (CPS) feedlines to
frequency, presumably due to undesired modes being excited on the feedline at discontinuities
CPW (FCPW) feedline with regular straps that connect the ground planes together to suppress
Fig. 3. SONNET simulations of the resonator current density. The normalized current den-
sity is less than 0.67 in blue areas, and rises to 1.0 in the red areas. The left panel shows
a resonator with uniform leg widths. The center panel show a resonators with rectangular
legs with a mean width selected to give the most uniform current in each leg, and the right
panel shows the final tapered resonator with fully optimized trapezoidal shaped legs.
the undesired slotline mode. The feedlines are made out of Niobium since it is difficult to
make 50 Ohm feedlines with TiN due to its high surface inductance. An extended niobium
groundplane was also added to reduce crosstalk between the two feedlines. In order to achieve
strong coupling (low Qc) a L-shaped extension of the center strip was created.
Our OLE MKID array is fabricated on an high resistivity (10–20 kilo-ohm cm) Si < 100 >
wafer to reduce two-level system (TLS) noise . Wafers have the native oxide removed
immediately before TiN film growth by dipping them in a buffered oxide etch (BOE). The TiN
film is deposited by reactive sputtering from a 99.99% purity Ti target in a mixture of ultra-high
purity nitrogen and argon. Depositions are done at room temperature at 1×10−7Pa background
pressure. The TiN film was deposited at a rate 37 nm/min using roughly 12% N2in Ar by flow
at 0.266 Pa total pressure. Conditions are tuned to provide a sub-stoichiometric composition
with slight compressive stress (∼100 MPa), Tc∼800 mK, and resistivity ∼100 µΩ cm. Layers
are patterned using a Canon stepping projection aligner. The TiN is reactive ion etched (RIE)
with a chlorine containing gas mixture in an inductively coupled plasma system (ICP) using
a photoresist mask. The wafer surface is solvent cleaned after etch step and given a mild O2
plasma clean. TiN resonators are protected by a blanket deposit of 80 nm RF-bias sputtered
SiO2. This protection layer is next patterned and etched away from transmission line areas.
Nb which is patterned by lift-off. An interlayer dielectric (ILD) consisting of 120 nm of SiO2
is then deposited and patterned. Finally, the surface is cleaned and patterned again for lift-off
of a 160 nm Nb film used for the ground plane metal.
SiO2protecting the TiN resonators must be removed in the final step of the process for
reduced TLS noise. A stencil of positive resist is patterned over the CPW structure to protect the
ILD. The TiN is exposed by dipping the wafer in BOE for 90 seconds. Photoresist is applied to
protect the wafer for dicing into chips and not removed until the device is mounted in a sample
One concern during fabrication was how accurately the tapered shape designed into the res-
onators would be reproduced in the final devices, since the taper is a small fraction of the
line width and not visible in a standard lab optical microscope. To measure this, devices from
three separate wafer runs were measured with an scanning electron microscope (SEM). These
measurements showed that while there was an overall random error of ∼100 nm in the width
of the slots, the widths of the legs were consistent with each other to ∼25 nm. Extensive simu-
lations show that in an ideal design with these realistic lithographic errors non-uniform current
−1000 100200 300 400
Pulse Height (degrees)
Number of Photons
Phase Noise (dBc/Hz)
Fig. 4. The top left panel shows a characteristic single photon pulse from a 254 nm photon
striking a typical resonator with measured quality factor Qm= 18,300. The fall time of the
pulse of 50 µs limits the maximum count to around 2000 counts/pixel/second. The top right
panel shows a histogram of the optimally estimated pulse height based on the detection of
∼50,000 254 nm photons. The solid red curve is the fit of the sum of two Gaussian to the
histogram, showing an energy resolution R=16, with a slightly broader shoulder extending
to lower energies. The low energy shoulder is likely due to photons that miss the circular
microlens and are absorbed in less sensitive areas of the resonator and photons that hit the
substrate between the legs of the inductive meander. The bottom panel shows the Fourier
transform of the average pulse template in black (arbitrary scale) as well as the measured
phase (blue dotted line) and amplitude (red dashed line) noise.
density will not limit our energy resolution until R = E/∆E exceeds 80.
The device was mounted in a gold-plated copper sample box and wire bonded to duroid transi-
tion boards. The sample box was inserted into a MKID testbed based on a dilution refrigerator
and cooled to approximately 100 mK. A Weinreb microwave HEMT amplifier with a noise
temperature of approximately 4 Kelvin is used to amplify the signal. The testbed allows col-
limated light fed from an external fiber to illuminate the array while up to 512 resonators are
probed with room temperature electronics. The electronics consist of an Anritsu signal genera-
tors, Marki IQ mixers, and a National Instruments Analog to Digitial Converter. More details on
the electronics and cryogenics can be found in . A mercury argon light source with narrow
band filters allows illumination with monochromatic light.
The resonators were illuminated with 254 nm Hg line photons, and their response was
recorded as shown in Figure 4. After processing with a Wiener optimal filter an energy res-
olution R=E/∆E=16 was measured, with ∆E being the FWHM. The expected energy resolution
based on the measured noise power spectrum and average pulse template was also R=16, show-
ing good agreement with the actual measurements. As shown in the bottom panel of Figure 4,
the noise consists of both white amplifier noise and pink TLS noise exclusively in the phase
direction. Most of the signal from the photons comes at frequencies above 104Hz. At these
frequencies the phase and amplitude noise are nearly identical, indicating that the dominant
noise source is the HEMT amplifier. The white noise level of -83 dBc/Hz at the device readout
power of -103 dBm is consistent with an amplifier noise temperature of 4 Kelvin assuming 3
dB of loss between the MKID and the amplifier. Reduction of the amplifier noise temperature
or an increase in the maximum usable readout power should immediately improve the energy
In a device with a fixed response (degrees of phase shift per eV of photon energy) the energy
resolution scales linearly with photon energy, except for a region between 350 and 700 nm
where a significant fraction of photons pass through the metal and are absorbed in the silicon
substrate. These substrate events occur when a photon is absorbed close to the silicon/TiN in-
terface, causing a significant fraction of the phonons (>70%) created in the substrate to diffuse
into the TiN and break Cooper Pairs. These substrate events can give quite large signals, and
will be discussed in depth in a future paper. Simple device changes, such as making the TiN
film thicker or using a transparent substrate such as sapphire, should eliminate these unwanted
Significant improvements can be made to increase the energy resolution, as the theoretical
energy resolution set by the creation statistics of the quasiparticles created during downcon-
version is R =
is the energy of the incident photon, ∆ = 1.72kBTcis the gap energy of the superconducting
absorber, and F ≈ 0.2 is the Fano factor . This works out to R=150 at 5 eV for an oper-
ating temperature of 100 mK. An operating temperature of 15 mK could allow a theoretical
maximum energy resolution of R=400 at 5 eV, although it is likely other noise sources, like
two level system noise , will become more important as future development increases the
Figure 5 shows data from a typical 32x32 pixel device. In this device, 85% of the resonators
were usable. Simple number counts showed that at least 95% of the resonators were present, but
variations in thickness and Tcof the TiN film caused some resonators to have similar resonant
frequencies and overlap in frequency. Future improvement to the uniformity of the TiN and a
more robust algorithm for placement of resonators should significantly decrease the number of
The quantum efficiency of the device was estimated by depositing a 40 nm TiN film on sap-
phire and measuring the reflection and transmission of the film as a function of wavelength,
then subtracting these quantities from unity to give the fraction of photons absorbed in the su-
perconducting film, as shown in the top right panel of Figure 5. This was done with a Varian
Cary 5000 spectrometer with accessories for absolute transmission and absolute specular re-
flectance. This figure slightly overestimates the quantum efficiency of the final device because
it does not account for losses in the microlens array, or the ∼10% correction due to photons
below 0.5 µm slipping through the slots in the inductor. The quantum efficiency is extremely
good in the UV, but declines to about 30% at 1 µm. Further development will likely result in
significant increases in quantum efficiency.
F∆, where η = 0.57 is the efficiency of creating quasiparticles , hν
Improvements in the fabrication of TiN films will lead to increased uniformity and fabrication
yield. The array size can be grown nearly arbitrarily by adding more resonators per feedline,
likely to a maximum of around 10,000 resonators in a 10–20 GHz band, and then by adding
more microwave feedlines. The primary challenges to growing the array are in the digitization
bandwidth and processing power of the room temperature electronics, not the device fabrica-
4.26 4.27 4.28
Detector Quantum Efficiency
Number of Resonators
Nearest Neighbor (MHz)
Number of Resonators
Fig. 5. The top left panel shows the microwave transmission through the device over 10%
of the frequency span covered by resonators. The top right panel is a measurement of
the quantum efficiency of a bare 40 nm TiN on sapphire film. The bottom left panel is a
histogram of measured quality factor for 852 out of a possible 1024 resonators. The internal
quality factor of the resonators, 1/Qi= 1/Qm−1/Qc, was approximately 1×106. The
bottom right panel is the frequency spacing in MHz between each resonator and its nearest
neighbor. Most of the missing resonators are too close together in frequency (< 500 kHz,
noted with a dashed line), resulting in only one resonator being included in the plot.
OLE MKID arrays have now been proven in the lab, and the first astronomical test at the
Palomar 200 inch telescope has been conducted with data taken on a variety of astronomical
objects. These arrays will bring extreme performance improvements to some of the most excit-
ing areas of astrophysics, such as coronagraphic planet finding , transient and time variable
sources , and high redshift galaxy evolution , and will likely also find application in other
fields such as quantum optics  and biological imaging .
This material is based upon work supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Ad-
ministration under Grant NNX09AD54G, issued through the Science Mission Directorate, Jet
Propulsion Lab’s Research & Technology Development Program, and a grant from the W.M.
Keck Institute for Space Studies. Part of the research was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Lab-
oratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration. The authors would like to thank Rick LeDuc, Jonas Zmuidzinas, Sunil
Golwala, David Moore, Peter Day, and Omid Noroozian for useful insights.