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 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.
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:
Scientists from ICFO have developed a novel graphene-enabled photodetector that operates at room temperature, and is sad to be highly sensitive, very fast, with a wide dynamic range and covers a broad range of THz frequencies.
Detecting terahertz (THz) light is extremely useful for two main reasons: First, THz technology is becoming a key element in applications regarding security (such as airport scanners), wireless data communication, and quality control but current THz detectors have shown strong limitations in terms of simultaneously meeting the requirements for sensitivity, speed, spectral range, being able to operate at room temperature, etc. Second, it is a very safe type of radiation due to its low-energy photons, with more than a hundred times less energy than that of photons in the visible light range.
The EU Graphene Flagship has published its graphene application roadmap, showing when the flagship expects different graphene applications to mature and enter the market.
As can be seen in the roadmap above (click here for a larger image), the first applications that are being commercialized now are applications such as composite functional coatings, graphene batteries, low-cost printable electronics (based on graphene inks), photodetectors and biosensors.
Mitsubishi has reportedly developed graphene-based MWIR sensors with extraordinarily high sensitivity. Thanks to an internal graphene FET gain, the responsivity is said to be 10 times higher than that of quantum-type IR sensors with no internal amplification. Mitsubishi uses graphene FET and leverages its high electron mobility.
Other than a graphene-based FET, reports suggest that there is "a light-amplifying part" that produces photoelectrons and photoholes and is placed under the graphene. At a very low temperature of, for example, 80K, the responsivity increases even more, by a factor of 100x.
Cardea, (formerly called Nanomedical Diagnostics), U.S-based manufacturer of a biology-enabled transistor technology made from graphene-based biosensors, announced that it raised $7.8 million Series A-1 financing.
The round was led by Alexandria Venture Investments, with participation from new and existing investors, including Series A round lead investor Serra Ventures. Jonathan Kabakoff, senior principal, science and technology at Alexandria Venture Investments, has taken a seat on Cardea’s board of directors, joining early investor Tim Hoerr, CEO and managing partner at Serra Ventures.
Researchers at Swinburne, the University of Sydney and Australian National University have collaborated to develop a solar absorbing, ultra-thin graphene-based film with unique properties that has great potential for use in solar thermal energy harvesting.
The 90 nanometre material is said to be a 1000 times finer than a human hair and is able to rapidly heat up to 160°C under natural sunlight in an open environment.