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:

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.

Researchers design atomically precise graphene nanoribbon heterojunction sensor

An international research team, led by the University of Cologne, has succeeded in connecting several atomically precise graphene nanoribbons to form complex structures. The scientists have synthesized and spectroscopically characterized nanoribbon heterojunctions, and were able to integrate the heterojunctions into an electronic component. In this way, they have created a novel sensor that is highly sensitive to atoms and molecules.

"The graphene nanoribbon heterojunctions used to make the sensor are each seven and fourteen carbon atoms wide and about 50 nanometres long. What makes them special is that their edges are free of defects. This is why they are called "atomically precise" nanoribbons," explained Dr. Boris Senkovskiy from the Institute for Experimental Physics. The researchers connected several of these nanoribbon heterojunctions at their short ends, thus creating more complex heterostructures that act as tunneling barriers.

Qurv Technologies develops graphene-enabled wide-spectrum image sensor technologies

Qurv Technologies, a Spain-based startup established in 2020 to develop wide-spectrum image sensors based on graphene and quantum-dot technologies, has developed a sensor that combines the unique electronic properties of graphene with suitable quantum nanoparticles as light sensitizers. The new device reportedly enables efficient detection of a broad range of wavelengths – from ultraviolet to infrared light – all concentrated into one simple device.

The production and transfer process of graphene leverages existing scalable Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) manufacturing processes. Furthermore, this graphene-based sensor could replace traditional costly alternatives based on indium gallium arsenide, paving the way to SWIR imagers up to 1000 times cheaper.

Researchers develop a 3D motion tracking system with graphene transparent photodetectors

Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) have developed a real-time, 3D motion tracking system developed that combines transparent light detectors with advanced neural network methods. The system could one day replace LiDAR and cameras in autonomous technologies and future applications include automated manufacturing, biomedical imaging and autonomous driving.

3D motion tracking system could streamline vision for autonomous tech image

The imaging system relies on transparent, highly sensitive graphene photodetectors developed by Zhaohui Zhong, U-M associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his group. They’re believed to be the first of their kind.

HexagonFab raises £1.9 million to accelerate development of its graphene-based 'Bolt’ system for protein characterization

UK-based developer of graphene-based biological sensors, HexagonFab, recently raised £1.9 million to accelerate development of its novel technology for process monitoring in the biopharmaceutical industry.

The company has developed a portable and affordable instrument – HexagonFab Bolt – which can very rapidly generate biopharma data.