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 experiment with LIG to create improved wearable health devices

A Penn State-led international research team (led by Professor Huanyu “Larry” Cheng at Penn State) recently published two studies that could boost research and development of future motion detection, tactile sensing and health monitoring devices.

Graphene made with lasers for wearable health devices image

There are various substances that can be converted into carbon to create graphene through laser radiation, in a process called laser-induced graphene (LIG). The resulting product can have specific properties determined by the original material. The team set out to test this process and has reached interesting conclusions.

Researchers develop flexible and self-adaptive airflow sensor enabled by a graphene and CNTs membrane

Researchers at the Ningbo Institute of Materials Technology and Engineering (NIMTE) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), led by Prof. Chen Tao, have developed a flexible and self-adaptive airflow sensor enabled by a graphene and CNTs membrane, which is mediated by the reversible microspring effect.

Airflow sensors based on the mechanical deformation mechanism have been drawing increasing attention thanks to their excellent flexibility and sensitivity. However, fabricating highly sensitive and self-adaptive airflow sensors via facile and controllable methods remains a challenge. Recently, inspired by the bats' wing membrane which shows unique airflow sensing capacity, the researchers at NIMTE prepared graphene/single-walled nanotubes (SWNTs)-Ecoflex membrane (GSEM), which can be arbitrarily transferred and subsequently adapt to diverse flat/bend and smooth/rough surface. Relying on the reversible microspring effect, the researchers developed a highly sensitive and self-adaptive GSEM-based airflow sensor.

Graphenea Foundry: a platform for the manufacture of graphene-based devices

This is a sponsored post by Graphenea

Graphenea’s Semiconductor catalogue spans from 1x1 cm2 single layer graphene films on a variety of substrates, to fully customized graphene-based device architectures implemented on wafers up to 150mm. The unique vertical integration that Graphenea offers, that covers the graphene growth, its transfer, its device fabrication and post-processing, allows Graphenea to have full control of the manufacturing process, continuously monitoring this through quality control processes and checkpoints.

GFET wafers (Graphenea)

Graphenea Foundry offers three products and services, which cover all the graphene needs one may have.

Graphene-based sensor can help detect when firefighters’ protective clothing is no longer safe

A University of Alberta researcher is working with Canada-based Davey Textile Solutions and other industry partners to reduce the risk of faulty protective gear used by firefighters, with a graphene-based sensor that can detect the gradual breakdown in garments from exposure to heat, moisture and ultraviolet (UV) light.

“These fibers age silently and lose their performance, so this sensor technology is a breakthrough in terms of safety for workers exposed to heat and flame,” said clothing and textiles scientist Patricia Dolez, the project’s lead researcher and an assistant professor in the U of A Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences (ALES).

Graphene-diamond junctions could assist in the realization of neuromorphic optical computers simulating human visual memory systems

Researchers from Nagoya University in Japan have designed highly efficient computing devices using graphene-diamond junctions that mimic some of the human brain's functions.

Schematics of optoelectronic synaptic functions of vertically aligned graphene/diamond junctions image

A phenomenon crucial for memory and learning is "synaptic plasticity," the ability of synapses (neuronal links) to adapt in response to increased or decreased activity. Scientists have tried to recreate a similar effect using transistors and "memristors" (electronic memory devices whose resistance can be stored). Recently developed light-controlled memristors, or "photomemristors," can both detect light and provide non-volatile memory, similar to human visual perception and memory. These excellent properties have opened the door to new materials that can act as artificial optoelectronic synapses.