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:

Crumpled graphene could enable fast, simple and sensitive biosensors

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found that crumpling graphene makes it more than ten thousand times more sensitive to DNA by creating electrical "hot spots". This discovery could assist in addressing a known issue of graphene-based biosensors - the face that they require a lot of DNA in order to function properly.

"This sensor can detect ultra-low concentrations of molecules that are markers of disease, which is important for early diagnosis," said study leader Rashid Bashir, a professor of bioengineering and the dean of the Grainger College of Engineering at Illinois. "It's very sensitive, it's low-cost, it's easy to use, and it's using graphene in a new way."

How can graphene assist in the war on Coronavirus?

As researchers and companies all over the world set out to battle the Coronavirus pandemic, many are revisiting graphene as a material with potential for helping to win this fight. The reasons for such potential could be found in graphene's known antibacterial/antiviral properties, its beneficial traits for medical sensors and devices and more.

Graphene has been shown in the past as extremely useful for creating various sensors. Earlier this month, a team led by Boston College researchers used a sheet of graphene to track the electronic signals inherent in biological structures, in order to develop a platform to selectively identify deadly strains of bacteria. In October 2019, Rice University team under chemist James Tour transformed their laser-induced graphene (LIG) into self-sterilizing filters that grab pathogens out of the air and kill them with small pulses of electricity. Commercially sold graphene-based sensors exist, like the graphene oxide (GO) sensor developed by the ICN2 Nanobioelectronics and Biosensors group that was added in 2016 to the list products offered by Biolin Scientific, a prestigious instrumentation company devoted to the production of analytical devices. The Q-Sense GO sensor enables interaction studies of GO with various analytes (measured substances) of interest and may open the door to various applications with interest for diagnostics, safety/security and environmental monitoring.

Graphene-based platform could selectively identify deadly strains of bacteria

A team led by Boston College researchers has used a sheet of graphene to track the electronic signals inherent in biological structures, in order to develop a platform to selectively identify deadly strains of bacteria. This effort could lead to more accurate targeting of infections with appropriate antibiotics, according to the team.

Graphene helps create a new platform to selectively ID deadly strains of bacteria image

The prototype demonstrates the first selective, rapid, and inexpensive electrical detection of the pathogenic bacterial species Staphylococcus aureus and antibiotic resistant Acinetobacter baumannii on a single platform, said Boston College Professor of Physics Kenneth Burch, a lead co-author of the paper.

The UK establishes a Graphene Innovation Group, explains how graphene assists business goals

Following a Global Business innovation Programme initiated in 2019, and a collaborative visit to the US, the UK established a new Graphene Innovation Group (UK-GIG) that puts together 15 specialists from UK companies that together share many years of experience in graphene and expertise across the entire value chain.

UK-GIG group photo, Boston

Scott Storey, a Business Innovation Advisor at Inventya and the lead coordinator at the UK-GIG, explains more about the group - "We can take an everyday industrial challenge, apply our combined graphene knowledge, engineer and manufacture an effective solution, and take that solution to national and international markets. UK-GIG is now an established cohort of 15 UK-based graphene companies, ranging from early stage through to established businesses. The UK-GIG companies are fully aware of the huge potential for graphene technology to improve materials or be used in novel ways across multiple sectors. They are seeking collaboration opportunities where they can combine their expertise to do what they do best - solve problems, design graphene applications, and help commercialize an increasingly exciting field. They aim to make the UK the best place on earth to be grafting in graphene!"

We have reached out to some of the GIG members, to find out how has graphene effected their business and products, and the effects of graphene on their materials or devices.

Researchers develop a graphene metamaterial film that absorbs sunlight with minimal heat loss

Researchers from Swinburne University developed a graphene-based highly efficient solar absorbing film that absorbs sunlight with minimal heat loss. The film rapidly heats up in an open environment and has great potential in solar thermal energy harvesting systems - in addition to other applications such as thermophotovoltaics (directly converting heat to electricity), solar seawater desalination, light emitters and photodetectors.

30nm graphene-metamaterial heat-absorbing film photo

This is the 2nd-generation material developed by the same group - now with a thickness of only 30 nm and improved performance and longer lifetime. The researchers have now created a first prototype and also suggest a scalable low-cost manufacturing process.

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