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:

Researchers develop graphene-based sensors that detect COVID-19 quickly and efficiently

Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) have used sheets of graphene to rapidly detect COVID-19 in laboratory experiments, an advance that could potentially detect variants of the virus.

Graphene sheets form sensor to rapidly detect COVID-19 imageThe white rectangle represents the substrate with graphene functionalized with SARS-CoV-2 antibody (shown in yellow). When the graphene detector interacts with the virus’ spike protein in a COVID-positive sample, its atomic vibration frequency changes.

According to UIC, the researchers combined sheets of graphene with an antibody designed to target the spike protein on the coronavirus. They then measured the atomic-level vibrations of these graphene sheets when exposed to COVID-positive and COVID-negative samples in artificial saliva. The sheets were also tested in the presence of other viruses, such as Middle East respiratory syndrome.

'Graphene camera’ captures real-time electrical activity of beating heart

Scientists from UC Berkeley and Stanford University have captured the real-time electrical activity of a beating heart, using a sheet of graphene to record an optical image — almost like a video camera — of the faint electric fields generated by the rhythmic firing of the heart’s muscle cells.

Graphene-based CAGE sensor image

The 'graphene camera' is a new type of sensor that could prove useful for studying cells and tissues that generate electrical voltages, including groups of neurons or cardiac muscle cells. To date, electrodes or chemical dyes have been used to measure electrical firing in these cells. But electrodes and dyes measure the voltage at one point only; a graphene sheet measures the voltage continuously over all the tissue it touches.

Paragraf introduces graphene Hall sensor optimized for cryogenic applications

Paragraf recently introduced the GHS-C Graphene Hall Sensor (GHS), providing a viable approach to measuring magnetic field strengths of 7 Tesla (T) and above, at temperature extremes below 3 Kelvin (K).

Paragraf's new GHS for cryogenic applications image

Graphene Hall sensor enables the accurate measurement of high magnetic field strengths at cryogenic temperatures, increasing manufacturing throughput by quicker magnet mapping, replacing existing NMR probe mapping stages. The cryogenic sensor also allows measurements directly in cold bore, removing the need for room temperature inserts giving quality data and time savings.

ESA and Poland-based AGP develop a graphene-based bi-functional temperature and magnetism sensor

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that a project it has backed has yielded a combined temperature and magnetism sensor. “Any time we can do more with less is a good result for the space sector,” notes ESA materials specialist Ugo Lafont. “Thanks to the unique properties of graphene, our prototype bi-functional sensor can measure magnetic field strength at the same time as taking temperature readings.

Prototypes of bi-functional sensor by ESA and AGP imagePrototypes of bi-functional sensor by ESA and AGP image

“And our tests show the sensor operates reliably from room temperature down to 12 degrees Kelvin. Normally separate temperature sensors are required to accurately measure such wide temperature ranges, right down to cryogenic levels.”

Cardea Bio partners with Scentian Bio to create a bio-electronic tongue/nose platform

Cardea Bio, a biotech company integrating molecular biology with semiconductor electronics, has signed a commercial partnership with Scentian Bio. Scentian is an expert in synthetic insect odorant receptors (iORs), one of nature’s ways of detecting and interpreting smells.

The partnership will enable Scentian to use a customized Cardean chipset, built with graphene-based biology-gated transistors, which will allow Scentian to manufacture a bio-electronic tongue/nose tech platform.