Fraunhofer ENAS shrinks 2D compasses

October 10, 2014 // By Julien Happich
Offering an order of magnitude better sensitivity than Hall-based magnetic field sensors while about a hundred times smaller, the monolithically integrated 2D Spin-valve sensor developed at Fraunhofer ENAS by Dr. Olaf Ueberschär's research team has the potential to displace numerous existing compass technologies.

Spin valves (SV) consist of two ferromagnetic layers separated by a non-magnetic conducting spacer – see figure 1 and their field sensing principle relies on a so-called giant magneto-resistance effect (GMR).

Fig. 1: Spin-valve multilayer stack with a coupling to an antiferromagnet.


The magnetization of one of the ferromagnets is fixed and serves as a reference layer via exchange coupling with an anti-ferromagnetic layer, while the other ferromagnet is allowed to respond to an external magnetic field (free layer).

A giant magneto-resistance effect (GMR) originates from the asymmetry in the spin-dependent scattering of electrons at the magnetic/non-magnetic interfaces for spin-up and spin-down electrons. This effect leads to a state of maximum resistance for an antiparallel alignment of the two ferromagnetic layer magnetizations, and to a state of minimum resistance in the case of parallel alignment.

For a maximum signal-to-noise ratio, the researchers have crafted, layer by layer a double full-bridge layout with an antiparallel alignment of the pinned layer magnetization for neighbouring meander structures – see figure 2. 

Even producing the GMR sensors at wafer level, they were able to precisely tune the magnetic alignment of the ferromagnetic layers of these multi-layered meander resistors through localized laser heating and in-field cooling (at a microscopic resolution).

Fig. 2. Optical microscopy image of the double full-bridge sensor showing the alignment of the exchange bias defined by laser heating and in-field cooling for each individual meander (yellow arrows).


The full design only measures 0.8x0.5mm, and because the sensing material layers are only a few nanometres thick and the laser heating so shallow, the 2D monolithic compass is fully CMOS-compatible, that is, the sub-micrometre thick sensing meanders could be manufactured as a post-processing step on top of another functional IC, claims Ueberschär. In effect, you could probably add magnetic sensing on top of the chip processing the signal for gyroscope and accelerometer MEMS.