Article last updated on: Jan 25, 2019

What is a sensor?

A sensor is a device that detects events that occur in the physical environment (like light, heat, motion, moisture, pressure, and more), and responds with an output, usually an electrical, mechanical or optical signal. The household mercury thermometer is a simple example of a sensor - it detects temperature and reacts with a measurable expansion of liquid. Sensors are everywhere - they can be found in everyday applications like touch-sensitive elevator buttons and lamp dimmer surfaces that respond to touch, but there are also many kinds of sensors that go unnoticed by most - like sensors that are used in medicine, robotics, aerospace and more.

Traditional kinds of sensors include temperature, pressure (thermistors, thermocouples, and more), moisture, flow (electromagnetic, positional displacement and more), movement and proximity (capacitive, photoelectric, ultrasonic and more), though innumerable other versions exist. sensors are divided into two groups: active and passive sensors. Active sensors (such as photoconductive cells or light detection sensors) require a power supply while passive ones (radiometers, film photography) do not.

Where can sensors be found?

Sensors are used in numerous applications, and can roughly be arranged in groups by forms of use:

  • Accelerometers: Micro Electro Mechanical technology based sensors, used mainly in mobile devices, medicine for patient monitoring (like pacemakers) and vehicular systems.
  • Biosensors: electrochemical technology based sensors, used for food and water testing, medical devices, fitness tracker and wristbands (that measure, for example, blood oxygen levels and heart rate) and military uses (biological warfare and more).
  • Image sensors: CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) based sensors, used in consumer electronics, biometrics, traffic and security surveillance and PC imaging.
  • Motion Detectors: sensors which can be Infrared, Ultrasonic or Microwave/Radar technology. They are used in video games, security detection and light activation.

What is graphene?

Graphene is a two-dimensional material made of carbon atoms, often dubbed “miracle material” for its outstanding characteristics. It is 200 times stronger than steel at one atom thick, as well as the world’s most conductive material. It is so dense that the smallest atom of Helium cannot pass through it, but is also lightweight and transparent. Since its isolation in 2004, researchers and companies alike are fervently studying graphene, which is set to revolutionize various markets and produce improved processes, better performing components and new products.

Graphene and sensors

Graphene and sensors are a natural combination, as graphene’s large surface-to-volume ratio, unique optical properties, excellent electrical conductivity, high carrier mobility and density, high thermal conductivity and many other attributes can be greatly beneficial for sensor functions. The large surface area of graphene is able to enhance the surface loading of desired biomolecules, and excellent conductivity and small band gap can be beneficial for conducting electrons between biomolecules and the electrode surface.

Graphene-based chemical sensor photo

Graphene is thought to become especially widespread in biosensors and diagnostics. The large surface area of graphene can enhance the surface loading of desired biomolecules, and excellent conductivity and small band gap can be beneficial for conducting electrons between biomolecules and the electrode surface. Biosensors can be used, among other things, for the detection of a range of analytes like glucose, glutamate, cholesterol, hemoglobin and more. Graphene also has significant potential for enabling the development of electrochemical biosensors, based on direct electron transfer between the enzyme and the electrode surface.

Graphene will enable sensors that are smaller and lighter - providing endless design possibilities. They will also be more sensitive and able to detect smaller changes in matter, work more quickly and eventually even be less expensive than traditional sensors. Some graphene-based sensor designs contain a Field Effect Transistor (FET) with a graphene channel. Upon detection of the targeted analyte’s binding, the current through the transistor changes, which sends a signal that can be analyzed to determine several variables.

Graphene-based nanoelectronic devices have also been researched for use in DNA sensors (for detecting nucleobases and nucleotides), Gas sensors (for detection of different gases), PH sensors, environmental contamination sensors, strain and pressure sensors, and more.

Commercial activities in the field of graphene sensors

In June 2015, A collaboration between Bosch, the Germany-based engineering giant, and scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Solid State Research yielded a graphene-based magnetic sensor 100 times more sensitive than an equivalent device based on silicon.

In August 2014, the US based Graphene Frontier announced raising $1.6m to expand the development and manufacturing of their graphene functionalized GFET sensors. Their “six sensors” brand for highly sensitive chemical and biological sensors can be used to diagnose diseases with sensitivity and efficiency unparalleled by traditional sensors.

Graphene Frontiers G-FET sensorG-FET Six-Sensors

In September 2014, the German AMO developed a graphene-based photodetector in collaboration with Alcatel Lucent Bell Labs, which is said to be the world’s fastest photodetector.

In November 2013, Nokia’s Cambridge research center developed a humidity sensor based on graphene oxide which is incredibly fast, thin, transparent, flexible and has great response and recovery times. Nokia also filed for a patent in August 2012 for a graphene-based photodetector that is transparent, thin and should ultimately be cheaper than traditional photodetectors.

The latest graphene sensor news:

New type of graphene photodetector could enable low-cost cameras for self-driving cars and robots

An international team of researchers recently reported its success in creating a new type of graphene-based photodetector.

The team integrated three concepts to achieve the new device: metallic plasmonic antennas, ultra sub-wavelength waveguiding of light and graphene photodetection. Specifically, the 2D-material hexagonal boron nitride was used as the waveguide for hyperbolic phonon polaritons, which can highly confine and guide mid-infrared light at the nanoscale. By carefully matching the nano-antenna with the phonon polariton waveguide, they efficiently funnel incoming light into a nanoscale graphene junction. By using this approach, they were able to overcome intrinsic limitations of graphene, such as its low absorption and its small photoactive region near the junction.

University of Manchester team develops graphene-based antibody test for detection of kidney disease

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from The University of Manchester have developed a new graphene-based testing system for disease-related antibodies, initially targeting a kidney disease called Membranous Nephropathy.

U of Manchester team develops graphene-based sensor for kidney diseases image

The new instrument, based on the principle of a quartz-crystal microbalance (QCM) combined with a graphene-based bio-interface, is said to offer a cheap, fast, simple and sensitive alternative to currently available antibody tests.

Researchers develop graphene-based supercapacitor to power wearable skin sensors

Researchers from the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea have recently developed a low-cost energy storage device to power electronic devices like wearable skin sensors. The supercapacitor, made with graphene ink that is sprayed onto flexible substrates, can be used for remote medical monitoring and diagnosis on wearable devices.

Graphene inks enable flexible and mechanically durable planar supercapacitors image

Materials scientist Sungwon Lee shared that as the demand for wearable devices and remote diagnosis has increased, scientists have focused on developing electronic skin devices. The team focused on "extremely tiny and flexible energy devices as a power source."

Researchers design graphene-based broadband detector of terahertz radiation

Scientists from Russia and Germany have created a graphene-based broadband detector of terahertz radiation. The device could have potential for applications in communication and next-generation information transmission systems, security and medical equipment.

Graphene detector reveals THz light’s polarization image(a) shows a top view of the device, with the sensitive region magnified in (b). The labels S, D, and TG denote the source, drain, and top gate. A side section of the detector is shown in (c). Image from MIPT

The new detector relies on the interference of plasma waves. Plasma waves in metals and semiconductors have recently attracted much attention from researchers around the world. Like the more familiar acoustic waves, the ones that occur in plasmas are essentially density waves, too, but they involve charge carriers: electrons and holes. Their local density variation gives rise to an electric field, which nudges other charge carriers as it propagates through the material. This is similar to how the pressure gradient of a sound wave impels the gas or liquid particles in an ever expanding region. However, plasma waves die down rapidly in conventional conductors.

International team develops ultrasensitive graphene-based microwave detector

A joint international research team, including teams from POSTECH of South Korea, Raytheon BBN Technologies, Harvard University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S., Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology in Spain, and the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan, has developed ultrasensitive sensors that can detect microwaves with the highest theoretically possible sensitivity. The research findings are drawing attention as an enabling technology for commercializing next-gen technologies like quantum computers.

Graphene-based Josephson junction microwave bolometer imageMicrowave bolometer based on graphene josephson junction. Image credit: Raytheon BBN Technologies and MIT

Microwave is used in a wide range of scientific and technological fields, including mobile communications, radar, and astronomy. Currently, microwave power can be detected using a device called bolometer. A bolometer usually consists of three materials: Electromagnetic absorption material, a material that converts electromagnetic waves into heat, and a material that converts the generated heat into electrical resistance. The bolometer calculates the amount of electromagnetic waves absorbed using the changes in the electrical resistance. Using the semiconductor-based diodes such as silicon and gallium arsenide in the bolometer, the sensitivity of the state-of-the-art commercial bolometer operating at room temperature is limited at 1 nanowatt (1 billionth of a watt) by averaging for a second.