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Future Ready: The Graphene Innovators

Posted By Graphene Council, The Graphene Council, Saturday, April 6, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, April 2, 2019

When the material graphene, which earned two University of Manchester scientists the Nobel Prize in Physics, exploded onto the research scene in 2004, many thought it was destined to change the world. Bulletproof armour and space elevators, super-antibiotics and rust-proof vehicles were only a few of the imagined applications of graphene, some of which are in development. However, realizing the full impact of the two-dimensional form of carbon carries as much promise as it does challenges.

As people around the globe race to solve the riddle of taking this emerging technology to market, researchers in the lab of McGill Professor Thomas Szkopek had a wave—a sound wave—of inspiration.

Innovation by Example

Szkopek devotes much of his research activity to exploring and exploiting 2D atomic crystals and he is especially curious about graphene. In his Nanoelectronic Devices and Materials lab, he and his students often have impromptu discussions about possible applications for graphene and how they could be developed. “Most of the ideas are bad – but that process is how good ideas get started,” he says. 

Szkopek has always been interested in solving science problems. He looks to his family for the source of his perseverance in the face of challenges. “I inherited a hard work ethic and tolerance for failure. You learn more from your failures than your successes, if you take the time to think about why things failed."

In the lab, he models this determination and inquisitiveness with the goal of fostering innovation—new ideas for problems new or old—and cross-disciplinary solutions. “My job is to allow students to reach their potential and encourage their curiosity. I give students freedom to ask their own questions and pursue their own good ideas. I want to get them out of the mode of being consumers of knowledge and turn them into producers of knowledge.”

He also uses his scientific connections with a diverse network of key players—collaborators from different disciplines, experts in transferring technology from lab to industry, and possible funders—to help students translate and apply new knowledge into practical devices with commercial potential that could benefit society and have a positive impact on people’s daily lives.



As a graduate student at UCLA before arriving at McGill in 2006, Szkopek was encouraged to ask probing physics questions and find practical engineering solutions to difficult problems by his Ph.D. supervisor, electrical engineering professor and physicist Eli Yablonovitch. Szkopek’s mentor introduced a factor that describes light-trapping phenomena, referred to as the “4n2 limit”, which is now used worldwide in almost all commercial solar panels. Yablonovitch was awarded a McGill Honourary Degree in 2018.

“I learned a lot from Eli about trying to reduce problems to their core and asking deep questions about physical limits. I shared an interest in applying physics to technological problems, which is closer to the engineering frontier where things aren’t figured out yet. If you ask good questions, you often find interesting answers. The key is to never lose your curiosity.”

The deep question always at the top of his mind: how to harness the potential of graphene?

A sound idea

During one scientific discussion in the lab, Peter Gaskell, a Ph.D. student who was working with Szkopek on developing lithium-ion batteries made with graphene-treated anodes for electric vehicles, proposed a novel idea about using graphene oxide for an acoustic application: to improve sound quality by using the material in a microphone.

While later sharing a beer with his brother Eric Gaskell, who was doing a Ph.D. in sound engineering at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, Peter floated his idea about graphene and graphene oxide’s mechanical properties and potential application in sound amplification.

Eric, who had worked for Audio Engineering Associates (AEA) in California building ribbon microphones for high-performance studio recording and has been a recording engineer at the Aspen Music Festival, was excited and intrigued. He agreed that graphene oxide might be an ideal material for acoustic membranes in ribbon microphones to enhance sound quality. Its high stiffness could potentially produce better sound with less distortion, while the low-density and lightness could lead to greater energy efficiency.

Peter again pitched the idea to Szkopek and his lab mates. “We couldn’t find any obvious holes in the idea, so we thought it should work,” says Szkopek. The Gaskell brothers proceeded to design, develop and build a graphene oxide membrane for ribbon microphones in his lab.

Szkopek’s initial endorsement and support of the idea, along with access to his lab space, specialized equipment, guidance and expertise in graphene, were invaluable: “Thomas’ enthusiasm for the idea allowed us to take it to the next level,” says Eric.

They successfully created a prototype acoustic membrane for ribbon microphones formed from ultra-thin, flat sheets of graphene oxide-based material, which markedly improved sound quality.

Szkopek encouraged them to explore commercializing the invention.

To start them on their way, Szkopek called Derrick Wong, a Technology Transfer Manager in McGill’s Office of Innovation and Partnerships.

“A key trait for researchers who work with our Office is to be very collaborative, like Thomas”, says Wong. “His personality is to encourage his students to explore and lead, and he provides them with guidance and a skill set.”

Impressed, Wong cautioned that the specific application wasn’t likely to attract funding from investors. “The prototype was cool, but the market for high-end microphones is very limited,” he says.

They discussed other possible applications that could expand the market for graphene oxide membrane technology, including loudspeakers for headphones, a $1.6 billion USD market.

Pivotal prototype funding

The Faculty of Engineering saw the potential of this idea and raised money from donors that enabled Szkopek to develop and pursue it with an Innovation Award for $7,000. “That funding was crucial because it allowed us to hire a summer student to work on developing a prototype for headphones. We didn’t need a million dollars, just thousands,” he says.

Electrical engineering undergraduate Raed Abdo helped devise techniques to form the graphene-based material into cone-shaped loudspeaker membranes for headphones, rather than flat acoustic membranes for microphones.

This turned out to be crucial for attracting investors.
Wong had identified TandemLaunch, a Montreal-based business incubator that specializes in creating start-ups from university research and has strong connections in the consumer electronics and audio industries, as an ideal potential early-stage investor.

He called Tandem and said: “You have to see this prototype.” Four people met with the invention team in Szkopek’s lab and sampled the graphene-based headphones. “They listened and went ‘Wow!’”

Eric would carry the invention forward as an entrepreneur-in-residence, who receives business mentorship, guidance and support in building a technology company. Szkopek would be technical advisor and, as a world-leading graphene scientist, build confidence with investors.

Gaskell joined the incubator in 2016, where he assembled a co-founding team for Ora Graphene Audio, which includes business lead Ari Pinkas and materials lead Sergii Tutashkonko. The start-up received seed funding to develop and commercialize the technology, along with valuable mentoring and infrastructure support. To date, Ora has raised $1 million through Kickstarter and is working closely with several of the biggest consumer electronics brands to develop graphene-based loudspeakers for the audio industry and graphene-based micro speakers for laptops, tablets and cell phones.

Pushing biosensing limits

After Ora’s launch, Szkopek turned his sights to another challenge. He and electrical engineering Ph.D. student Ibrahim Fakih began to explore the potential of graphene’s electronic properties to design and develop a large area, graphene-based field effect transistor for high-precision sensing of ions in water.

“I had been wondering,” says Szkopek, “how could you design a graphene transistor to improve performance in sensing things? Is there an advantage to using graphene and how could you realize that advantage?”

“This device improves the minimum pH detection limits by 20 times over current silicon transistor and glass electrode sensors at a much lower cost. Making the transistor physically larger makes it quieter,” explains Szkopek, who worked with Wong to identify a promising application for commercialization.

Fakih, Szkopek and Abdo co-founded UltraSense, a company that aims to improve water quality monitoring with low-cost, graphene-based sensors.

UltraSense won a 2018 McGill Dobson Cup Award for $10,000 and McGill EngInE prize for $5,000. “Water quality is incredibly important, and I’m excited about the local and global possibilities. Imagine a network of sensors continuously feeding data that gives you the levels of contaminants in water and a map in real time,” says Szkopek.

He recently initiated a collaboration with McGill chemical engineering professor Viviane Yargeau, a leading water quality researcher. “We plan to work with her to test how well the technology functions in a real outdoor environment.”

Seeing is believing

The path from curiosity-driven invention to practical, commercial innovation opens the door to dynamic entrepreneurial and employment opportunities for McGill students and graduates who train and do research. Ora inspired more engineering students in Szkopek’s lab to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions.

“Ora was an idea and it turned into a new technology company that employs people. That encourages students to go for it. They see that what they do in the lab can turn into something people use in their daily life,” Szkopek says. “This innovation is all being driven by encouraging students’ curiosity, and by providing the resources and environment so they can develop their ideas. The world is changing and there are now more opportunities for students and graduates to build or contribute to their own start-up companies. The future is in their hands.”

Tags:  2D materials  biosensors  Eli Yablonovitch  Eric Gaskell  Graphene  McGill University  nanomaterials  Peter Gaskell  Thomas Szkopek 

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Graphene and silk make self-healable electronic tattoos

Posted By Graphene Council, The Graphene Council, Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Researchers have designed graphene-based e-tattoos designed to act as biosensors. The sensors can collect data relate to human health, such as skin reactions to medication or to assess the degree of exposure to ultraviolet light.

Considerable research has gone into electronic tattoos (or e-tattoos), as part of the emerging field of or epidermal electronics. These are a thin form of wearable electronics, designed to be fitted to the skin. The aim of these lightweight sensors is to collect physiological data through sensors.

The types of applications of the sensors, from Tsinghua University, include assessing exposure to ultraviolet light to the skin (where the e-tattoos function as dosimeters) and for the collection of ‘vital signs’ to assess overall health or reaction to a particular medication (biosensors).

The use of graphene aids the collection of electric signals and it also imparts material properties to the sensors, allowing them to be bent, pressed, and twisted without any loss to sensors functionality.

The new sensors, developed in China, have shown – via as series of tests – good sensitivity to external stimuli like strain, humidity, and temperature. The basis of the sensor is a material matrix composed of a graphene and silk fibroin combination.

The highly flexible e‐tattoos are manufactured by printing a suspension of graphene, calcium ions and silk fibroin. Through this process the graphene flakes distributed in the matrix form an electrically conductive path. The path is highly responsive to environmental changes and it can detect multi-stimuli.

The e‐tattoo is also capable of self-healing. The tests showed how the tattoo heals after damage by water. This occurs due to the reformation of hydrogen and coordination bonds at the point of any fracture. The healing efficiency was demonstrated to be 100 percent and it take place in less than one second.

The researchers are of the view that the e-tattoos can be used as electrocardiograms, for assessing breathing, and for monitoring temperature changes. This means that the e‐tattoo model could be the basis for a new generation of epidermal electronics.

Commenting on the research, chief scientist Yingying Zhang said: “Based on the superior capabilities of our e-tattoos, we believe that such skin-like devices hold great promise for manufacturing cost-effective artificial skins and wearable electronics.”

Tags:  biosensors  Electronics  Graphene  Healthcare  Tsinghua University  Yingying Zhang 

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Gold and graphene now used in biosensors to detect diseases

Posted By Graphene Council, The Graphene Council, Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Graphene and gold are now being used in ultrasensitive biosensors to detect diseases at the molecular level with near perfect efficiency.


In a paper published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, scientists with the University of Minnesota explain how they developed ultrasensitive biosensors capable of probing protein structures and, therefore, able to detect disorders related to protein misfolding.

Such disorders range from Alzheimer's disease in humans to chronic wasting disease and mad cow disease in animals.

"In order to detect and treat many diseases we need to detect protein molecules at very small amounts and understand their structure," said Sang-Hyun Oh, lead researcher on the study, in a media statement. "Currently, there are many technical challenges with that process. We hope that our device using graphene and a unique manufacturing process will provide the fundamental research that can help overcome those challenges."

The gold+graphene-infused biosensors can detect the imbalance that causes behind Alzheimer's disease, chronic wasting disease and mad cow disease.

Oh explained that graphene, a high-quality form of graphite that 'evolves' into a material made of a single layer of carbon atoms, has already been used in biosensors. The problem has been that its remarkable single atom thickness does not interact efficiently with light when shined through it. Light absorption and conversion to local electric fields are essential for detecting small amounts of molecules when diagnosing diseases.

According to the scientist, previous research utilizing similar graphene nanostructures has only demonstrated a light absorption rate of less than 10%.

In their new study, however, the UMN researchers combined graphene with nano-sized metal ribbons of gold. Using sticky tape and a high-tech nanofabrication technique called “template stripping,” they were able to create an ultra-flat base layer surface for the graphene.

They then used the energy of light to generate a sloshing motion of electrons or plasmons in the graphene. "By shining light on the single-atom-thick graphene layer device, they were able to create a plasmon wave with unprecedented efficiency at a near-perfect 94 percent light absorption into 'tidal waves' of electric field. When they inserted protein molecules between the graphene and metal ribbons, they were able to harness enough energy to view single layers of protein molecules," the university's press release reads.

According to Oh, he and his team were surprised by the rate of light absorption, which matched almost perfectly their computer simulations.

The scientists are hopeful that this technique will greatly improve different devices used to detect disorders related to protein misfolding.

Tags:  Biosensors  Graphene  Sang-Hyun Oh  University of Minnesota 

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Directed evolution builds nanoparticles

Posted By Graphene Council, The Graphene Council, Thursday, March 7, 2019
Updated: Friday, March 1, 2019

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three scientists who developed the method that forever changed protein engineering: directed evolution. Mimicking natural evolution, directed evolution guides the synthesis of proteins with improved or new functions.

First, the original protein is mutated to create a collection of mutant protein variants. The protein variants that show improved or more desirable functions are selected. These selected proteins are then once more mutated to create another collection of protein variants for another round of selection. This cycle is repeated until a final, mutated protein is evolved with optimized performance compared to the original protein.

Now, scientists from the lab of Ardemis Boghossian at EPFL, have been able to use directed evolution to build not proteins, but synthetic nanoparticles (Chemical Communications, "Directed evolution of the optoelectronic properties of synthetic nanomaterials").

These nanoparticles are used as optical biosensors – tiny devices that use light to detect biological molecules in air, water, or blood. Optical biosensors are widely used in biological research, drug development, and medical diagnostics, such as real-time monitoring of insulin and glucose in diabetics.

“The beauty of directed evolution is that we can engineer a protein without even knowing how its structure is related to its function,” says Boghossian. “And we don't even have this information for the vast, vast majority of proteins.”

Her group used directed evolution to modify the optoelectronic properties of DNA-wrapped single-walled carbon nanotubes (or, DNA-SWCNTs, as they are abbreviated), which are nano-sized tubes of carbon atoms that resemble rolled up sheets of graphene covered by DNA. When they detect their target, the DNA-SWCNTs emit an optical signal that can penetrate through complex biological fluids, like blood or urine.

Using a directed evolution approach, Boghossian’s team was able to engineer new DNA-SWCNTs with optical signals that are increased by up to 56% – and they did it over only two evolution cycles.

“The majority of researchers in this field just screen large libraries of different materials in hopes of finding one with the properties they are looking for,” says Boghossian. “In optical nanosensors, we try to improve properties like selectivity, brightness, and sensitivity. By applying directed evolution, we provide researchers with a guided approach to engineering these nanosensors.”

The study shows that what is essentially a bioengineering technique can be used to more rationally tune the optoelectronic properties of certain nanomaterials.

Boghossian explains: “Fields like materials science and physics are mostly preoccupied with defining material structure-function relationships, making materials that lack this information difficult to engineer. But this is a problem that nature solved billions of years ago – and, in recent decades, biologists have tackled it as well. I think our study shows that as materials scientists and physicists, we can still learn a few pragmatic lessons from biologists.”

Tags:  Ardemis Boghossian  biosensors  DNA  EPFL  Graphene  nanomaterials  optoelectronics 

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Fraunhofer IPA Maps Out Its Graphene Strategy

Posted By Dexter Johnson, IEEE Spectrum, Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA uses the tagline: “We manufacture the future”.

Certainly as one of the leading research institutes in the world for the development of automotive technology, Fraunhofer has a global reputation for delivering the latest cutting edge breakthroughs in any technology associated with the automotive industry from energy storage to lightweight engineering.

Based on Fraunhofer’s titanic reputation in R&D, it was a stroke of luck that The Graphene Council was able to meet up with Fraunhofer’s Head of Functional Materials, Ivica Kolaric, at the Economist’s “The Future of Materials Summit” held in Luxembourg in mid-November.

In his role as leader of the functional material group at Fraunhofer, Kolaric has been conducting research on nanoscale carbon materials, like graphene, for almost 20 years. The aim of all this work has consistently been to produce functionalized nanoscale carbon materials to bring them to industrial applications.

Kolaric and his team have been working specifically on graphene since 2008 and have been synthesizing graphene using both chemical vapor deposition (CVD) as well as exfoliation techniques. With these various grades of graphene, the Fraunhofer researchers have experimented with a variety of applications.

“We first started with applications in the field of energy storage and transparent conductive films,” said Kolaric in an interview at the Luxembourg conference.  “As you may remember there was a big discussion a few years back going on if graphene could serve as a replacement for idium tin oxide (ITO).  But we determined that this is maybe not the right application for graphene because when you use it large areas for conductive films it’s competing with commodity products.”

Kolaric also explained that Fraunhofer had collaborated with battery manufacturer Maxell in the development of different types of energy storage devices, specifically supercapacitors. They had some success in increasing the energy density of these devices, which is an energy storage device’s ability to store a charge. With the graphene, the increased surface area of graphene did give a boost to storage capabilities but it just couldn’t deliver enough of an increase in performance over its costs, according to Kolaric.

Now Kolaric says that Fraunhofer is looking at graphene in sensor applications, in particular biosensors. “Graphene is really a perfect substrate for doping, so you can make it sensitive for any kind of biological effects,” said Kolaric. “This could make it a very good biosensor.”

But Kolaric cautions that avenues for purification have to be developed. If this and other issues can be addressed with graphene, there is the promise of a sensor technology that could be very effective at detecting gases, which currently is tricky for automotive sensors that are restricted to detecting pressure and temperature. “I think graphene can play an important role in this,” added Kolaric.

In addition to next generation sensors, Kolaric believes that graphene’s efficiency as a conductor could lead to it being what he terms an “interlink” on the submicron level. Kolaric believes that this will lead to its use in power electronics.

Kolaric added: “I would say sensors and serving as an interlink, so these are the two occasions where we think graphene can be effective.”

Tags:  biosensors  energy storage  Fraunhofer Institute  indium tin oxide  ITO  sensors  supercapacitors 

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