Resistance checks between ESD diode cells and pads or power clamps, and current density analysis for such current flows are commonly used for ESD networks verification . When such simulations use standard post-layout netlists generated by parasitic extraction tools, the calculated resistances may be dramatically higher or lower than real values by a factor of up to 100x, which is huge. Current densities can also be significantly off. Relying on such simulations leads to either missed ESD problems, or to wasted time trying to fix artificial errors on a good layout. The root causes of such errors are the artifacts of parasitic extraction, including the incorrect treatment of a distributed ESD diode as a cell with a single instance pin, or connecting ESD diode with a port by a small (1 mOhm) resistor. This paper discusses how to detect, identify, and get around these artifacts.
Resistance checks and current density checks are often performed on post-layout netlists to verify ESD protection networks  – see Fig.1. Point to point (P2P) resistance is used as a proxy, or a figure of merit for the quality of metallization, and as a proxy for ESD stress voltage. High P2P resistance values (e.g., higher than 1 Ohm) indicate some problems with the metallization, and should be debugged and improved.
In recent years, many fabless semiconductor design companies have reported puzzling problems with ESD resistance and current density simulations, when post-layout netlists generated by standard parasitic extraction tools are used. These problems include unreasonably large or low (by ~100x) resistances between ESD diodes and pads or power clamps, and unphysical current densities in the interconnects. These problems became especially severe in the latest, sub-10nm technology, nodes with high interconnect resistances.
These problems usually happen when fabless companies use ESD diode p-cells provided by the foundries. The cells are designed, verified, and qualified by the foundries, and should be good. However, the quality of the connections of these ESD cells to the power nets and to IO nets can be poor. Such poor connections can lead to high resistances and current densities, and to big ESD problems. That’s why, even when ESD cells themselves are high quality, the resistance and current density checks on the complete ESD network are required.
Artificially high resistance case
In foundry-provided PDKs, ESD diodes are often represented as p-cells (parameterized cells) with a single instance pin for each of the terminals, anode and cathode. This is different from how power clamp MOSFETs are usually treated in the PDK – where each individual finger of a multi-finger devices is represented as a separate device instance, with its own instance pins for terminals.
These instance pins are usually used as a start point or a destination point for P2P resistance simulations. As a result, in the case of ESD diode p-cell simulations, current flows into the discrete point, creating artificial current crowding, high-current density values, and a high spreading resistance – see Fig.2.
This is an artifact of simulation, induced by artifacts of representing a large distributed device by a single, discrete instance pin. In real operation, in real life, ESD diodes will conduct current by all fingers, and the total ESD current will be distributed over a large area, more or less uniformly, to many fingers. In advanced technology nodes with many layers, the lower metal layers have high sheet resistivity, and they are used for vertical current routing, and contribute little to the total resistance. Contacts and vias above the active device are all conducting vertical current in parallel, ideally – uniformly. The current is shared by many contacts and vias – which leads to a low total resistance.
On the contrary, in simulations using a single instance pin as a start point or as a destination point – the current is getting concentrated and crowded near that instance pin. It creates artificial, unrealistic current flow patterns – such as lateral current in lower metal layers (M0, M1, M2, …), highly non-uniform current in vias, with high current density in vias close to the instance pin, and so on.
This leads to an artificially high spreading resistance. Fig. 3 compares the results of simulation for a standard ESD diode for 5nm technology. The resistance calculated using a single instance pin is ~7.65 Ohm. The resistance simulated using conditions providing the realistic (distributed) current distribution over the device area is 0.069 Ohm – more than 100x lower value!
Furthermore, the layers show very different ranking in their contributions to the total P2P resistance, for these two simulation conditions. Simulations with discrete instance pins may lead to a completely wrong layer optimization strategy, focusing on the wrong layers.
Current density distribution in lower layers shows a strong current crowding near a single instance pin – see Fig. 4. In the case of distributed current flow, current density is more or less uniform, and its peak value is ~63x lower than in single instance pin case.
Artificially low resistance case
In some situations, the ESD diode instance pin is connected not to the low-level layers (such as diffusion or contacts), but directly to a port (pin) of a power net, located at the top metal layer. This connector resistor is very low, such as 1 mOhm. Why does that happen? I can guess that the terminal of the ESD diode is mapped to a well or substrate layer, that is not extracted for resistance. As a result, the parasitic extraction tool connects it to a net’s R network at a rather arbitrary point, which turns out to be a port, by a connector resistor. This is similar to how MOSFET’s bulk terminals are typically connected to the port (because wells and substrates are not extracted for resistance).
Visualization of parasitics and their probing allows engineers to identify such extraction details, and to understand what’s going on in parasitic extraction and electrical analysis, as illustrated in Fig. 5.
Thus, the connectivity of ESD diode to the power net is incorrect. The resistance from the ESD diode to the port of the power net is very low (1 mOhm), due to this connector resistor bypassing the real current path through the interconnects.
Similarly, the simulated current path from the ESD diode to power clamp differs from the real current path, see Fig.6. The current goes along the way of minimum resistance (minimum dissipated power), from ESD diode to the power net port, then flows along the (low-resistive) top metal, and then flows down to power clamp. Simulated resistance and current densities are artificial and different form the real resistance and current density.
To properly simulate the resistance and current for this case, the connector resistance has to be removed, and the diode’s instance pin should be connected to the lowest layer, in a distributed manner. It would be ideal if this is done by the parasitic extraction tool.
Connector resistors are a semi-hidden feature in parasitic extraction tools. These are non-physical resistors, i.e. they are not generated by layout shapes and their resistivity. These resistors are not controllable by the users. Extraction tool vendors do not educate semiconductor companies about this feature, probably because it’s considered an internal detail of implementation.
Connector resistors are used for various connectivity purposes – for example, to connect instance pins of devices to resistive network or to other instance pins, to connect disconnected (“opens”) parts of a net, to “short” ports, and for many other purposes. Their value is usually very low – such as 0.1, 1, 10, or 100 mOhms. Most of the time, they do not have any harmful effect on electrical simulation results. However, sometimes, as discussed in a previous section, they can have a strange, or a very bad effect – such as shorting a finite resistance of interconnects, or adding 0.1 Ohm resistance to a system that has much lower resistance (e.g., power FET have interconnects resistance values in the range of mOhms).
Being able to “understand,” identify and visualize connector resistors on the layout (as shown in Fig.5), and just to be aware of their presence and potential impact, is very important to have a good understanding of the structure, connectivity, and potential pitfalls in a post-layout netlist.
Resistance and current density checks are useful and necessary steps for ESD verification, but proper care must be taken when setting up the simulations. Simulation conditions should mimic and reproduce the realistic current flow over and near the devices, to avoid parasitic extraction and simulation artifacts.
All simulations and visualizations presented in this paper were done using ParagonX .
- “ESD Electronic Design Automation Checks”, Technical report, ESD Association, 2014. Free download: https://www.esda.org/zh_CN/store/standards/product/4/esd-tr18-0-01-14
- ParagonX Users Guide, Diakopto Inc., 2022.