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Nanoelectronics May 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

High-Volume Graphene Production for Sensing Applications

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Difficulties in producing large volumes of high-quality graphene are a major barrier to the commercialization of the material. Several recent developments demonstrate that mass-producing graphene may be imminent.

Description

In February 2019, the graphene and two-dimensional-materials producer Grolltex announced that it would increase its production capacity to up to 30,000 eight-inch-wafer equivalents—sizes that would be large enough for integration into electronic devices—per year at its San Diego, California, fabrication site. The company, which uses chemical-vapor-deposition techniques to fabricate single-layer films of graphene or hexagonal boron nitride, boasts the largest such production capacity in the United States. The company also claims to have four active projects with customers who are evaluating Grolltex's products for use in commercial devices.

In March 2019, the University of Cambridge spin-out Paragraf announced that the company can also now produce eight-inch samples of graphene. The company claims to be able to produce materials with "tuneable, definable properties designed for the specific end point application" and aims to have a product on the market in the coming months.

In February 2019, researchers from the University of Manchester published the results of their research on the development of high-volume production methods for graphene-based yarn. The techniques could potentially produce up to 1,000 kilograms of graphene-based yarn per hour without affecting existing production costs.

Implications

Technologies and products based on graphene will rise to prominence only if the underlying fabrication methods are scalable and sustainable. The developments that this Viewpoints outlines suggest that several groups are making significant progress in enabling this material to make a commercial impact. The range of applications in which graphene could support the development of novel technologies is extremely broad. For example, Grolltex is actively pursuing the application of its materials in the biosensing sector, claiming that its customers use its materials in DNA detection, disease diagnosis, and drug validation. The University of Manchester researchers are also focusing on sensing applications in wearable technology for their graphene yarn materials, claiming that by being washable, flexible, relatively cheap, and biodegradable, these materials hold significant advantages over current alternatives based on metals. In addition to targeting high-performance chemical and electrical sensors, Paragraf is also targeting the fabrication of graphene-based transistors that could enhance the speed of silicon-based competitors by a factor of ten.

Impacts/Disruptions

By accelerating the commercialization of graphene, all the above production techniques have the potential to make a major impact on a wide range of industrial sectors—from electronics and energy to sensing and health care—in the short to medium term. A shift away from silicon-based electronics, the introduction of smart textiles (rather than "simply" integrating existing technology into items of clothing), and the development of novel and powerful sensing techniques would be both highly disruptive and commercially lucrative. These developments all suggest that graphene could, finally, be on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics, energy, sensing, health care, displays, wearables

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Infrared Imaging with Quantum Dots

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Infrared cameras are both complex and expensive to fabricate. Recent quantum-dot research could prove to be a breakthrough in enabling more widespread commercialization of infrared cameras.

Description

In February 2019, researchers from the University of Chicago published the results of their research into novel infrared cameras. The researchers used quantum dots—nanoscale semiconductor particles—to efficiently detect the radiation. By tuning the size of the particles, the researchers were able to fabricate a device that can capture both shortwave and midwave infrared radiation. By varying the polarity and magnitude of the electrical bias they applied to the device, the researchers were able to switch between infrared wavelength (short or mid) ranges detectable at frequencies of up to 100,000 times per second. Each wavelength range provides distinct information. For example, the shortwave infrared band enables the user to probe the chemical composition of a sample; the mid-infrared region contains information related to the temperature of a sample. The relative ease with which the researchers were able to fabricate the device lies at the heart of the significant cost reductions. Standard infrared cameras require the deposition of multiple layers of semiconductors in complex epitaxial processes that have relatively high rates of failure. By contrast, using colloidal quantum dots enables manufacturers to use standard fabrication techniques (such as spin coating)—significantly reducing fabrication complexity and, in turn, fabrication cost.

Implications

The key advantages of the quantum dots in these studies are their solution processability and their tunability over wide spectral ranges. These features, rooted in the nanoscale properties of the quantum dots themselves, mean that devices based on these materials could simultaneously be cheaper and add additional functionality in comparison with existing solutions. However, the commercialization of the University of Chicago technology will depend largely on whether the university is making efforts to protect this intellectual property (IP) and to what extent it is supporting the researchers in exploiting that IP. Transferring the technology to an engaged third party with sufficient resources to invest in further developing the technology would perhaps be the quickest means of bringing it to market. However, given the broad applicability of the technology, the more lucrative (although slower and riskier) path would be to attempt to develop this potential through a spin-off venture.

Impacts/Disruptions

Driving down device cost could potentially lead to manufacturers' introducing infrared-camera technology into, for example, consumer products. Typical examples of consumer applications that could integrate this technology include smartphones (where infrared sensing is beginning to play a role in distinguishing between the offerings of various manufacturers) and the automotive industry (where next-generation sensors are of the utmost importance as the industry increasingly shifts toward the introduction of autonomous vehicles). Reductions in cost are of lesser importance in defense applications, where performance is the key factor in determining uptake of an emerging technology.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Sensing, cameras, surveillance, defense, consumer electronics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: