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TFT LCD Displays - TFT Device Design

Blaze Display Technology Co., Ltd. | Updated: Aug 31, 2015

【R&D Department of Blaze Display】There are many structures for thin-film transistors (TFTs), with the first major distinction among them being planar CMOS structures vs. staggered amorphous-silicon (a-Si) structures.

Structure of TFT electrodes

The a-Si TFTs are further divided into staggered and inverse-staggered types.

Structural difference between top- and bottom-gate TFTs

In the inverse-staggered type, the ohmic layer (n+ a-Si) in the channel region can either be etched directly (the etch-back method) or etched by forming a protective film on the a-Si thin film (the etch-stopper method).
 Each method has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. The inverse-staggered structure offers a relatively simple fabrication process and an electron mobility that is about 30 percent larger than that of the staggered type. These advantages have resulted in the bottom-gate TFT structure becoming more widely adopted in TFT-LCD design, despite the fact that it$$$s technically an upside-down structure.

Because a-Si has photoelectric characteristics, the a-Si TFT must be shielded from incident light .The a-Si layer must also be as thin as possible to minimize the generation of photo-induced current, which can cause the TFT to malfunction.

Reduction of photo-induced leakage current in a TFT

In the top-gate structure, a light-shield layer must first be formed at the region of the TFT channel The formation of this light shield may cause an extra process step. In bottom-gate TFTs, on the other hand, a gate electrode is first formed at the TFT channel region, where it also serves as a light-shield layer.

Light-shielding structures in a TFT-Array

Design Parameters for TFT Arrays

The operational characteristics of a TFT are determined by the sizes of its electrodes, the W/L ratio, and the overlap between the gate electrode and the source-drain .

Design of an a-Si TFT

The parasitic capacitances resulting from the overlap of electrodes can not be avoided in staggered TFT structures, but the parasitic effects must be minimized to maximize the LCD$$$s performance.
 To reduce the overlap between the electrodes, a self-align process is often implemented .

Minimizing parasitic capacitance in TFTs

It turns out that the characteristics of the a-Si TFTs used in AMLCDs are very similar to the characteristics of the MOSFETs in semiconductor devices.

I-V Characteristics of an a-Si TFT and its operating points

When a TFT panel is operated under real-world conditions, the gate voltage is set at either 20 V for switch-on, or at -5 V for switch-off. Under these operating conditions, the a-Si TFT is a good switching device with an on/off current ratio larger than 106.
The performance of the TFT also depends on fabrication process parameters, such as electron mobility and thickness of the gate insulators. If we wish to increase the current gain of the TFT for better pixel-switching performance, and the process parameters are fixed, the only thing we can do is increase the W/L ratio. But doing this is not without a significant trade-off: The larger W/L results in a lower aperture ratio - less of the pixel$$$s area is transparent to light when the pixel is ON - so the display$$$s brightness and contrast are reduced.

Storage Capacitor Design

To maintain a constant voltage on a charged pixel over the entire frame cycle, a storage capacitor (Cs) is fabricated at each pixel. A large Cs can improve the voltage holding ratio of the pixel and reduce the kickback voltage, with resulting improvements in contrast and flicker, but a large Cs results in a lower aperture ratio and higher TFT load.
 The storage capacitor can be formed by using either an independent storage-capacitor electrode or part of the gate bus-line as a storage-capacitor electrode (Cs-on-gate method)

Example of an independent-Cs design and equivalent circuit

Example of a Cs-on-gate design and equivalent circuit

The advantages of the Cs-on-gate method are that it eliminates the need for modification in the fabrication process; it minimizes the number of processes; and it produces a larger aperture ratio than does the independent Cs method. But few things are free in TFT-LCD design. The trade-off with the Cs-on-gate method is an increase in the RC time constant of the gate bus-line, which reduces the TFT switching performance.

This RC delay problem can have serious effects on the appearance of the display.

RC delay of a gate signal and its effect on a black display

The solution lies in fabricating the gate bus-line with a low-resistance material such as aluminum (Al).

Signal Bus-line Design

The requirement that the gate bus-line must have a small RC time delay is particularly important for larger and higher-resolution LCDs. If the widths of the signal bus-lines are increased to reduce resistance, the aperture ratio of the pixels is reduced, so the preferred approach is to use a low-resistance material for the bus-lines. For this, Al offers advantage over other metals, such as Cr, W, and Ta.
 But, in the bottom-gate TFT process, the gate electrodes are first fabricated on the glass substrate and then subjected to high-temperature processes and various chemical etches. So, to use Al as a gate-electrode material, the Al gate electrodes must be protected from damage produced by hillock formation.

Design of low-resistance aluminum gate bus-line

A thin film of an aluminum oxide (Al2O3), formed by anodic oxidation of the Al surface at room temperature, can protect the Al electrodes from the problems associated with hillock formation. Double-metal or clad structures over the Al electrodes - using a relatively stable material such as Cr, Ta, or W - can also be used to protect the Al electrodes. The trade-off is that these approaches require an additional process. Recently, Al alloy (such as Al-Nd), which can suppress hillock formation, has been used as a gate-electrode material to eliminate the additional process.

Aperture Ratio

As implied previously, another important design consideration is maximizing the aperture ratio of the pixel. In the unit cell, TFT electrodes, storage-capacitor electrodes, signal bus-lines, and the black-matrix material constitute opaque areas.

Opaque areas and aperture ratio of a pixel

The combined areas of these elements, along with the area of the pixel aperture through which light can pass, determine the aperture ratio of the pixel. The aperture ratio is given by the area of the pixel aperture divided by the total pixel area (aperture area plus the area of the opaque elements). To increase the aperture ratio as much as possible, the size of the opaque elements must be made as small as possible, while maintaining a design that maximizes the size of the pixel-electrode area.
 Unfortunately, one can only go so far in reducing the opaque areas before degrading image quality and yield. As shown in Fig. 12, the light-shield area on the color-filter substrate must be extended to block the light leaking through the gap between the data-line and the pixel ITO. To do this in conventional TFT-LCD cell structures, while simultaneously providing an adequate plate-alignment margin, significantly reduces the aperture.

But far higher aperture ratios can be achieved by switching from a conventional structure to the BM-on-Array structure, regardless of the accuracy of the plate alignment. The aperture ratio of this cell structure is not determined by the BM opening at the color filter substrate, but by the BM-on-Array, which can be formed with a very high positioning accuracy.

Improvement of aperture ratio using a black-matrix-on-TFT-array

In an independent-Cs-electrode design, the aperture ratio can be increased if the storage-capacitor electrode is fabricated using ITO.

Improvement of aperture ratio using an ITO layer as a Cs electrode

Design for Redundancy

Even when the greatest care is taken and sophisticated quality-management procedures are applied, it is not possible to make the TFT-array fabrication process so perfect that it produces only completely defect-free arrays.

Possible line and pixel defects on a TFT array

To improve the production yield in the fabrication process, redundancy design, repairable design, and fault-tolerant designs are often used. Dual-bus-line design or double-metal structure can help recover from problems of line breakage. Dummy-repair-line design can save the defective panel from data-bus-line open failures. While these redundant-design techniques can effectively improve fabrication yield, in some cases they can also reduce the aperture ratio.

The TFT-array must be protected from electrostatic discharge (ESD), which can be generated in the fabrication processes such as during the rubbing of the alignment layer and spin-drying. Design approaches for protecting the TFT-array against ESD include bus-line shorting and ESD protection circuits.

ESD protection using a bus-line shorting method

ESD protection using protection circuits

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