A University of Sussex research team, led by Professor Alan Dalton, has received new funding of £1 million from private company Advanced Material Development, to pursue their research into graphene and other nanomaterials.
The team will conduct research into various avenues, including camouflage technology to stop soldiers from being spotted by thermal imaging cameras or night vision goggles. The team will also develop their research into anti-counterfeiting graphene inks which can be printed onto clothes and medicine containers; incorporated into smart tires which monitor for problems; used on banknotes; included on metal-free radio-frequency identification tags (RFID) tags for supermarkets to track products; and wearable technology, including monitors for babies’ heartbeats or diabetic patients’ glucose levels.
Professor Alan Dalton said: “The funding we’ve received from AMD means that we can push forward with our research into useful applications for nanomaterials like graphene. Whether that’s to develop wearable technology to remotely track babies’ heartbeats or to print ink onto car tires which can monitor the tires and warn the driver about problems, the potential applications of these materials are vast... One of the most exciting applications is for camouflage clothing which masks the heat or light being emitted from a material or surface. This paves the way for one day making a cloaking device like the one in the movie Predator which lowers its wearer’s thermal temperature, or like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.”
The £1 million is split over two years and covers four post-doctorate researchers and various students who will primarily produce nanomaterial inks.
Regarding the invisibility cloaks for the military and heat-proof windows, the team explained that when the graphene ink is laid onto textile or substrate, its reflectiveness can be manipulated. In the laboratory, Alan Dalton’s team has been able to control how ions move between graphene sheets which modifies the sheet’s optical properties. The researchers have shown that this works with heat as well as light, recording more than a 5-degree drop in the temperature in the lab. There are clear military applications for this, using a graphene coating to hide the infrared signature of a soldier or a vehicle. With further development, a soldier’s thermal signature could be totally camouflaged to keep them safe from detection at night or from thermal imaging.
The same technology can work on hard surfaces too, such as windows. In hot climates, it will be possible to cool a room by reducing the amount of heat passing through the window into it, and vice versa in cold weather. Similarly, the amount of light coming into a room could be changed with the touch of a button.
As per the smart tires application, the team at Sussex is developing a graphene ink which would be flexible and conductive enough to be printed onto car tires. It would be able to inform the driver about the health of the tires. In collaboration with AMD, they are already working with a German automotive company on this technology.
On the metal-free tags for supermarkets application, AMD and the Sussex team are already working with a major UK retailer on creating metal-free RFID tags for products. They have created an alternative to metal tags on clothing and food by developing antennas based on graphene inks, which can be printed onto paper. This will help stores to track their items within supply chains and keep more accurate inventories of their stocks within stores. Retailers will be able to get rid of metal-dependent tags and replace them with this more eco-friendly solution.
For the anti-counterfeiting application for fashion and medicine, the Sussex laboratory has created a way to incorporate an invisible but unique ink-based signature into textiles and onto hard materials. With this, fashion houses can be sure their clothes are genuinely theirs and not rip-off copies. Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies could likewise be assured of the authenticity of medicines. Even often-stolen items such as metal power line cables could be stamped with the ink so their true origin can be tracked.
On the wearable technology for health front, the team has developed a potentially lifesaving baby monitor to track new-borns’ heartbeats remotely in developing countries where medical centers are sparse. They’re now looking to take the developments further by creating printable tattoos for diabetic patients – which could track their glucose levels and give them early notice that they are at risk.
Dr. Sue Baxter, Director of Innovation and Business Partnerships, said: “The University is thrilled about the ground-breaking technologies that are bursting out of this university-business partnership. We have such great research capability at Sussex and teaming up with AMD has created a fantastic platform for Alan and his team to get their innovations out of the lab and into our daily lives in a transformational way.”
Professor Dalton’s team has already created a prototype capacitive sensor for a smartphone screen using silver nanowires and graphene – which was highly conductive, didn’t rely on ITO (which may be facing a critical shortage in supply and contains damaging indium) and is also flexible and almost smash-proof.