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:
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and University of California Berkeley researchers have found that graphene-based sensors can perform in harsh environments that are inhospitable to other existing technologies.
"Graphene has been projected as a miracle material for years now, but its application in harsh environmental conditions was unexplored," says Sohail Shaikh, who has developed the new sensors, together with KAUST's Muhammad Hussain. "Existing sensor technologies operate in a very limited range of environmental conditions, failing or becoming unreliable if there is much deviation," Shaikh adds.
In June 2020, Paragraf entered into a working partnership with the Magnetic Measurement section at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, to demonstrate how new opportunities for magnetic measurements are opened up through the unique properties of its graphene sensor, particularly its negligible planar Hall effect. Now, Paragraf has demonstrated the ability of its graphene Hall Effect sensors to withstand high levels of radiation.
This conclusion, based on testing from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), proves that ‘unpackaged’ Hall Effect sensors can be used in high-radiation environments such as space. The project was funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency.
A recent study by researchers at Gauhati University, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and DAIICT in India has demonstrated a soil moisture sensor made from graphene quantum dots, which are nanometer-sized fragments of graphene.
Water sensors are vital for various agriculture applications, like keeping track of the watering schedule for a large number of plants, such as for a field of crops. Soil moisture sensors measure the water content in the soil to avoiid crop destruction by under or over watering the field.
Following a $7.8 Million Series A-1 financing announced in March 2019, Cardea, (formerly called Nanomedical Diagnostics), a U.S-based manufacturer of a biology-enabled transistor technology made from graphene-based biosensors, now announced another $7.5 Million raised in the a Series A2 Financing.
The capital will help accelerate the growth and development of the Company’s proprietary Tech+Bio Infrastructure and chipsets that enable Cardea’s Innovation Partners to bring “Powered by Cardea" products to market with features and competitive advantages Cardea defines as "never seen before".
Researchers at Penn State, Northeastern University and five universities in China have developed and tested a stretchable, wearable gas sensor for environmental sensing.
The sensor combines a newly developed laser-induced graphene foam material with a unique form of molybdenum disulfide and reduced-graphene oxide nanocomposites. The researchers were interested in seeing how different morphologies of the gas-sensitive nanocomposites affect the sensitivity of the material to detecting nitrogen dioxide molecules at very low concentration. To change the morphology, they packed a container with very finely ground salt crystals.