European Commission funded research project, the Graphene Flagship, will demonstrate a selection of the project’s most exciting innovations at the Science is Wonderful exhibition in Brussels, Belgium, on 25 and 26 September 2019. The free exhibition, held at Tour & Taxis, a redeveloped industrial space in Brussels, is part of the European Research and Innovation Days and aims to bring a world of science and technology to the general public.
Demonstrations from the Graphene Flagship include technology that has been developed for human health and wellbeing. For example, a graphene-based brain implant that could be used to provide information on the onset of seizures. The new technology, which has been developed by Graphene Flagship partners the Microelectronic Institute of Barcelona (IMB-CNM, CSIC), the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) and ICFO, demonstrates a major step in understanding the functions of the human brain.
The exhibition will also showcase examples of graphene dispersions and graphite electrodes manufactured by Graphene Flagship partner Talga. As a high-tech materials company and a leader in bulk graphene and graphite supply, Talga will demonstrate how graphene can easily be exfoliated from graphite, illustrating the journey from material exfoliation, right through to commercialisation.
Other demonstrations at Science is Wonderful include a newly developed virtual reality (VR) system which can be used to construct, manipulate and build graphene and other layered material structures. Developed by Graphene Flagship partner the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), the VR system demonstrates clearly how graphene can be modified and manipulated, with the ability to edit molecules and perform calculations on their electronic properties in real-time.
The VR system gives students and other citizens an unforgettable, low-barrier to entry for the complex machinery of atomic-scale materials and technology. However, it can also provide even experienced researchers with a unique sandbox for scientific problem solving, quantitative analysis, idea generation and discovery.
“The Graphene Flagship’s presence at Science is Wonderful will bolster its efforts to promote the use of graphene in commercial products,” explained Jari Kinaret, director of the Graphene Flagship. “During the first five years of our ambitious Graphene Flagship project, we managed to bring together academic researchers and industrial business leaders to create and commercialise technologies that are already improving European society — the demonstrations at Science is Wonderful will showcase some beautiful examples.”
New technological devices are prioritizing non-invasive tracking of vital signs not only for fitness monitoring, but also for the prevention of common health problems such as heart failure, hypertension, and stress related complications, among others. Wearables based on optical detection mechanisms are proving an invaluable approach for reporting on our bodies inner workings and have experienced a large penetration into the consumer market in recent years.
Current wearable technologies, based on non-flexible components, do not deliver the desired accuracy and can only monitor a limited number of vital signs. To tackle this problem, conformable non-invasive optical-based sensors that can measure a broader set of vital signs are at the top of the end-users’ wish list.
In a recent study published in Science Advances ("Flexible graphene photodetectors for wearable fitness monitoring"), ICFO researchers have demonstrated a new class of flexible and transparent wearable devices that are conformable to the skin and can provide continuous and accurate measurements of multiple human vital signs. These devices can measure heart rate, respiration rate and blood pulse oxygenation, as well as exposure to UV radiation from the sun.
While the device measures the different parameters, the read-out is visualized and stored on a mobile phone interface connected to the wearable via Bluetooth. In addition, the device can operate battery-free since it is charged wirelessly through the phone.
“It was very important for us to demonstrate the wide range of potential applications for our advanced light sensing technology through the creation of various prototypes, including the flexible and transparent bracelet, the health patch integrated on a mobile phone and the UV monitoring patch for sun exposure. They have shown to be versatile and efficient due to these unique features”, reports Dr. Emre Ozan Polat, first author of this publication.
The bracelet was fabricated in such a way that it adapts to the skin surface and provides continuous measurement during activity (see Figure 1). The bracelet incorporates a flexible light sensor that can optically record the change in volume of blood vessels, due to the cardiac cycle, and then extract different vital signs such as heart rate, respiration rate and blood pulse oxygenation.
Secondly, the researchers report on the integration of a graphene health patch onto a mobile phone screen, which instantly measures and displays vital signs in real time when a user places one finger on the screen (see Figure 2). A unique feature of this prototype is that the device uses ambient light to operate, promoting low-power-consumption in these integrated wearables and thus, allowing a continuous monitoring of health markers over long periods of time.
ICFO’s advanced light sensing technology has implemented two types of nanomaterials: graphene, a highly flexible and transparent material made of one-atom thick layer of carbon atoms, together with a light absorbing layer made of quantum dots. The demonstrated technology brings a new form factor and design freedom to the wearables’ field, making graphene-quantum-dots-based devices a strong platform for product developers.
Dr. Antonios Oikonomou, business developer at ICFO emphasized this by stating that “The booming wearables industry is eagerly looking to increase fidelity and functionality of its offerings. Our graphene-based technology platform answers this challenge with a unique proposition: a scalable, low-power system capable of measuring multiple parameters while allowing the translation of new form factors into products.”
Dr. Stijn Goossens, co-supervisor of the study, also comments that “we have made a breakthrough by showing a flexible, wearable sensing system based on graphene light sensing components. Key was to pick the best of the rigid and flexible worlds. We used the unique benefits of flexible components for vital sign sensing and combined that with the high performance and miniaturization of conventional rigid electronic components.”
Finally, the researchers have been able to demonstrate a broad wavelength detection range with the technology, extending the functionality of the prototypes beyond the visible range. By using the same core technology, they have fabricated a flexible UV patch prototype (see Figure 3) capable of wirelessly transferring both power and data, and operating battery-free to sense the environmental UV-index. continuous monitoring of health markers over long periods of time.
The patch operates with a low power consumption and has a highly efficient UV detection system that can be attached to clothing or skin, and used for monitoring radiation intake from the sun, alerting the wearer of any possible over-exposure.
“We are excited about the prospects for this technology, pointing to a scalable route for the integration of graphene-quantum-dots into fully flexible wearable circuits to enhance form, feel, durability, and performance”, remarks Prof. Frank Koppens, leader of the Quantum Nano-Optoelectronics group at ICFO. “Such results show that this flexible wearable platform is compatible with scalable fabrication processes, proving mass-production of low-cost devices is within reach in the near future.”
Scientists have developed a novel graphene-enabled photodetector that operates at room temperature, is highly sensitive, very fast, has a wide dynamic range and covers a broad range of THz frequencies.
Detecting terahertz (THz) light is extremely useful for two main reasons:
First, THz technology is becoming a key element in applications regarding security (such as airport scanners), wireless data communication, and quality control, to mention just a few. However, current THz detectors have shown strong limitations in terms of simultaneously meeting the requirements for sensitivity, speed, spectral range, being able to operate at room temperature, etc.
Second, it is a very safe type of radiation due to its low-energy photons, with more than a hundred times less energy than that of photons in the visible light range.
Many graphene-based applications are expected to emerge from its use as material for detecting light. Graphene has the particularity of not having a bandgap, as compared to standard materials used for photodetection, such as silicon. The bandgap in silicon causes incident light with wavelengths longer than one micron to not be absorbed and thus not detected. In contrast, for graphene, even terahertz light with a wavelength of hundreds of microns can be absorbed and detected. Whereas THz detectors based on graphene have shown promising results so far, none of the detectors so far could beat commercially available detectors in terms of speed and sensitivity.
In a recent study, ICFO researchers Sebastian Castilla and Dr. Bernat Terres, led by ICREA Prof. at ICFO Frank Koppens and former ICFO scientist Dr. Klaas-Jan Tielrooij (now Junior Group Leader at ICN2), in collaboration with scientists from CIC NanoGUNE, NEST (CNR), Nanjing University, Donostia International Physics Center, University of Ioannina and the National Institute for Material Sciences, have been able to overcome these challenges. They have developed a novel graphene-enabled photodetector that operates at room temperature, and is highly sensitive, very fast, has a wide dynamic range and covers a broad range of THz frequencies.
In their experiment, the scientists were able to optimize the photoresponse mechanism of a THz photodetector using the following approach. They integrated a dipole antenna into the detector to concentrate the incident THz light around the antenna gap region. By fabricating a very small (100 nm, about one thousand times smaller than the thickness of a hair) antenna gap, they were able to obtain a great intensity concentration of THz incident light in the photoactive region of the graphene channel. They observed that the light absorbed by the graphene creates hot carriers at a pn-junction in graphene; subsequently, the unequal Seebeck coefficients in the p- and n-regions produce a local voltage and a current through the device generating a very large photoresponse and, thus, leading to a very high sensitivity, high speed response detector, with a wide dynamic range and a broad spectral coverage.
The results of this study open a pathway towards the development a fully digital low-cost camera system. This could be as cheap as the camera inside the smartphone, since such a detector has proven to have a very low power consumption and is fully compatible with CMOS technology.
The Mobile World Congress (MWC) held annually in Barcelona, Spain is one of the largest technology conferences in the world. For the last three years, the MWC has been hosting the Graphene Pavilion that showcases the research institutes and technologies that they have developed under the EU’s Graphene Flagship.
The Graphene Council visited the Graphene Pavilion last month in Barcelona and we came back with some videos. One of the anchor institutions at the Pavilion is The Institute of Photonics (ICFO) located just outside of Barcelona. The Graphene Council has been speaking to Frank Koppens at ICFO since 2015 about how graphene was impacting photonics and optoelectronics.
In our latest visit with them at MWC this year, we got an update on some of the ways they are applying their technologies to various technologies.
In the one shown in the video below, the researchers have developed ultraviolet (UV) sensors for protecting the wearers from overexposure to the sun.
What the ICFO discovered six years ago was that while graphene generates an electron-hole pair for every single photon the material absorbs generates, it doesn’t really absorb that much light. To overcome this limitation of graphene, they combined it with quantum dots with the hybrid material being capable of absorbing 25 percent of the light falling on it. When you combine this new absorption capability with graphene’s ability to make every photon into an electron-hole pair, the potential for generating current became significant.
The ICFO has been proposing applications like this for this underlying technology for years, and producing working prototypes. At the MWC in 2016, the ICFO was exhibiting a heart rate monitor. In that device, when a finger is placed on the photodetector, the digit acts as an optical modulator, changing the amount of light hitting the photodetector as your heart beats and sends blood through your fingertip. This change in signal is what generates a pulse rate on the screen of the mobile device.
This same basic technology is at the heart of another technology ICFO was exhibiting this year (see video below) in which the graphene-based photodector can determine what kind of milk you are about to drink. This could conceivably be used by someone who has a lactose intolerance that could threaten their lives and by using the detector could determine if it was cow’s milk or soy milk, for instance.
While ICFO goes so far as to discuss prices for the devices, it’s not clear that ICFO is really committed to any of these technologies for its wide-spectrum CMOS graphene image sensor, or not. In the case of the heart monitor, the researchers claimed at the time it was really just intended to demonstrate the capabilities of the technology.
The long-range aim of the technology is to improve the design of these graphene-based image sensors to operate at a higher resolution and in a broader wavelength range. Once the camera is improved, the ICFO expects that will be used inside a smartphone or smart watch. In the meantime, these wearable technologies offer intriguing possibilities and maybe even a real commercial avenue for the technology.
The use of graphene in the growing field known as plasmonics—in which the waves of electrons known as surface plasmons that are generated when photons strike a metallic structure—has been transforming the world of photonics and optoelectronics, enabling the possibility of much smaller devices operated by photons rather than electrons.
It’s worth providing a bit of background on the field of plasmonics before jumping to this latest research. The use of photons instead of electrons for something like an integrated circuit has the clear benefit that photons travel much faster than electrons, promising much faster devices. However, the use of light in these applications is limited by the relatively large size of wavelengths of light. Light is fast, but their wavelengths are much larger than nanometer-scale dimensions of most integrated circuits.
Plasmonics provides a way to convert that light—photons—into waves of electrons that can be tuned to have much smaller dimensions than those of light. The dimensions of these plasmon waves can be a hundred times smaller than the smallest wavelengths of light. This means that light can serve as the basis of photonic integrated circuits, but many more devices than that.
The field of plasmonics has really taken in off in the last half-decade, and ICFO has been at the forefront of a lot of that work, especially in using graphene to enable the effect. However, what Garcia de Abajo has proposed is a new theoretical approach to generate visible plasmons in graphene not from light but from tunneling electrons.
In research published in the journal ACS Photonics, Garcia de Abajo and his colleague Sandra de Vega have suggested that there are more efficient ways of generating surface plasmons on graphene than using an external light source and have instead shown through models that graphene plasmons can be efficiently excited via electron tunneling in a sandwich structure formed by two graphene monolayers separated by a few atomic layers of hexagonal boron nitride.
As mentioned, it’s possible to tune the size of the plasmon waves, especially graphene plasmons, which can be changed in size according to the amount of doping level (an addition of other materials). While high doping levels can push the wavelength of the graphene plasmons towards the visible range, these grpahene plasmons primarily reside in the mid-infrared region, which translates into a weak coupling between far-field light and graphene.
What de Vega and García de Abajo have proposed is a methodology for visible-plasmon generation in graphene that requires no light at all. Instead, plasmons are generated from tunneling electrons, which are electrons that are able to pass through a material on the quantum level that they could not otherwise pass through.
To achieve this photon-less plasmonics, the researchers propose a graphene–hexagonal boron nitride (hBN)–graphene sandwich structure. In their model, the hBN layer is 1-nm thick that is sandwiched between two graphene monolayers.
When the right amount of voltage (bias) is applied between the two graphene sheets, it produces tunneling electrons through the gap. The researchers discovered a particular voltage window in which the tunneling electrons lose energy through the excitation of a propagating optical plasmon rather than dissipate through coupling with the vibrations of the crystal lattice of hBN that carry heat, which are known as phonons, (low bias) or electron–electron interactions (high bias).
One of the side benefits of plasmonic devices that operate in this way—without the need for photons—can also be used in reverse as sensors. In this way when a change occurs in the graphene plasmon properties, that change could lead to a voltage readout.