Graphene Enables Broad Spectrum Sensor Development

Team successfully marries a CMOS IC with graphene, resulting in a camera able to image visible and infrared light simultaneously.

Graphene Enables Broad Spectrum Sensor Development

By Wisse Hettinga

Researchers at ICFO—the Institute of Photonic Sciences, located in Catalonia, Spain—have developed a broad-spectrum sensor by depositing graphene with colloidal quantum dots onto a standard, off-the-shelf read-out integrated circuit. It is the first-time scientists and engineers were able to integrate a CMOS circuit with graphene to create a camera capable of imaging visible and infrared light at the same time. Circuit Cellar visited ICFO

Stijn Goossens is a Research Engineer at ICFO- the Institute of Photonic Sciences.

Stijn Goossens is a Research Engineer at ICFO- the Institute of Photonic Sciences.

and talked with Stijn Goossens, one of the lead researchers of the study.

HETTINGA: What is ICFO?

GOOSSENS: ICFO is a research institute devoted to the science and technologies of light. We carry out frontier research in fundamental science in optics and photonics as well as applied research with the objective of developing products that can be brought to market. The institute is based in Castelldefels, in the metropolitan area of Barcelona (Catalonia region of Spain).

HETTINGA: Over the last 3 to 4 years, you did research on how to combine graphene and CMOS. What is the outcome?

GOOSSENS: We’ve been able to create a sensor that is capable of imaging both visible and infrared light at the same time. A sensor like this can be very useful for many applications—automotive solutions and food inspection, to name a few. Moreover, being able to image infrared light can enable night vision features in a smartphone.

HETTINGA: For your research, you are using a standard off-the-shelf CMOS read-out circuit correct?

GOOSSENS: Indeed. We’re using a standard CMOS circuit. These circuits have all the electronics available to read the charges induced in the graphene, the rows and columns selects and the drivers to make the signal available for further processing by a computer or smartphone. For us, it’s a very easy platform to work on as a starting point. We can deposit the graphene and quantum dot layer on top of the CMOS sensor (Photo 1).

PHOTO 1 The CMOS image sensor serves as the base for the graphene layer.

PHOTO 1
The CMOS image sensor serves as the base for the graphene layer.

HETTINGA: What is the shortcoming of normal sensors that can be overcome by using graphene?

GOOSSENS: Normal CMOS imaging sensors only work with visible light. Our solution can image visible and infrared light. We use the CMOS circuit for reading the signal from the graphene and quantum dot sensors. Tt acts more like an ‘infrastructure’ solution. Graphene is a 2D material with very special specifications: it is strong, flexible, almost 100 percent transparent and is a very good conductor.

HETTINGA: How does the graphene sensor work?

GOOSSENS: There are different layers (Figure 1). There’s a layer of colloidal quantum dots. A quantum dot is a nano-sized semiconductor. Due to its small size, the optical and electronic properties differ from larger size particles. The quantum dots turn the photons they receive into an electric charge. This electric charge is then transferred to the graphene layer that acts like a highly sensitive charge sensor. With the CMOS circuit, we then read the change in resistance of the graphene and multiplex the signal from the different pixels on one output line.

FIGURE 1 The graphene sensor is comprised of a layer of colloidal quantum dots, a graphene layer and a CMOS circuitry layer.

FIGURE 1
The graphene sensor is comprised of a layer of colloidal quantum dots, a graphene layer and a CMOS circuitry layer.

HETTINGA: What hurdles did you have to overcome in the development?

GOOSSENS: You always encounter difficulties during the course of a research study and sometimes you’re close to giving up. However, we knew it would work. And with the right team, the right technologies and the lab at ICFO we have shown it is indeed possible. The biggest problem was the mismatch we faced between the graphene layer and the CMOS layer. When there’s a mismatch, that means there’s a lack of an efficient resistance read-out of the graphene—but we were able to solve that problem.

HETTINGA: What is the next step in the research?

GOOSSENS: Together with the European Graphene Flagship project, we are developing a production machine that will allow us to start a more automated production process for these graphene sensors.

HETTINGA: Where will we see graphene-based cameras?

GOOSSENS: One of the most interesting applications will be related to self-driving cars. A self-driving car needs a clear vision to function efficiently. If you want to be able to drive a car through a foggy night or under extreme weather conditions, you’ll definitely need an infrared camera to see what’s ahead of you. Today’s infrared cameras are expensive. With our newly-developed image sensor, you will have a very effective, low-cost solution. Another application will be in the food inspection area. When fruit ripens, the infrared light absorption changes. With our camera, you can measure this change in absorption, which will allow you to identify which fruits to buy in the supermarket. We expect this technology to be integrated in smartphone cameras in the near future.

ICFO | www.icfo.eu

This article appeared in the September 326 issue of Circuit Cellar

The Future of Inkjet-Printed Electronics

Silver nanoparticle ink is injected into an empty cartridge and used in conjunction with an off-the-shelf inkjet printer to enable ‘instant inkjet circuit’ prototyping. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology)

Silver nanoparticle ink is injected into an empty cartridge and used in conjunction with an off-the-shelf inkjet printer to enable ‘instant inkjet circuit’ prototyping. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology)

Over the past decade, major advances in additive printing technologies in the 2-D and 3-D electronics fabrication space have accelerated additive processing—printing in particular—into the mainstream for the fabrication of low-cost, conformal, and environmentally friendly electronic components and systems. Printed electronics technology is opening an entirely new world of simple and rapid fabrication to hobbyists, research labs, and even commercial electronics manufacturers.

Historically, PCBs and ICs have been fabricated using subtractive processing techniques such as photolithography and mechanical milling. These traditional techniques are costly and time-consuming. They produce large amounts of material and chemical waste and they are also difficult to perform on a small scale for rapid prototyping and experimentation.

This single-sided wiring pattern for an Arduino microcontroller was printed on a transparent sheet of coated PET film, (Photo courtesy of Georgia Technical Institute)

This single-sided wiring pattern for an Arduino microcontroller was printed on a transparent sheet of coated PET film, (Photo courtesy of Georgia Technical Institute)

To overcome the limitations of subtractive fabrication, over the past decade the ATHENA group at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) has been developing an innovative inkjet-printing platform that can print complex, vertical ICs directly from a desktop inkjet printer.

To convert a standard desktop inkjet printer into an electronics fabrication platform, custom electronic inks developed by Georgia Tech replace the standard photo inks that are ejected out of the printer’s piezoelectric nozzles. Inks for depositing conductors, insulators/dielectrics, and sensors have all been developed. These inks can print not only single-layer flexible PCBs, but they can also print complex, vertically integrated electronic structures (e.g., multilayer wiring with interlayer vias, parallel-plate capacitors, batteries, and sensing topologies to sense gas, temperature, humidity, and touch).

To create highly efficient electronic inks, which are the key to the printing platform, Georgia Tech researchers exploit the nanoscale properties of electronic materials. Highly conductive metals (e.g., gold, silver, and copper) have very high melting temperatures of approximately 1,000°C when the materials are in their bulk or large-scale form. However, when these metals are decreased to nanometer-sized particles, their melting temperature dramatically decreases to below 100°C. These nanoscale particles can then be dispersed within a solvent (e.g., water or alcohol) and printed through an inkjet nozzle, which is large enough to pass the nanoparticles. After printing, the metal layer printed with nanoparticles is heated at a low temperature, which melts the particles back into a highly conductive metal to produce very low-resistance electrical structures.

Utilizing nanomaterials has enabled the creation of plastic, ceramic, piezoelectric, and carbon nanotube and graphene inks, which are the fundamental building blocks of a fully printed electronics platform. The inks are then tuned to have the correct viscosity and surface tension for a typical desktop inkjet printer.

By loading these nanomaterial-based conductive, dielectric, and sensing inks into the different-colored cartridges of a desktop inkjet printer, 3-D electronics topologies such as metal-insulator-metal (MIM) capacitors can then be created by printing the different inks on top of each other in a layer-by-layer deposition. Since printing is a non-contact additive deposition method, and the processing temperatures are below 100⁰C, these inks can be printed onto virtually any substrate, including standard photo paper, plastic, fabrics, and even silicon wafers to interface with standard ICs with printed feature sizes below 20 µm.

The Georgia Tech-developed printing platform is a major breakthrough. It makes the cost of additively fabricating circuits nearly the same as printing a photo on a home desktop inkjet printer—and with the same level of simplicity and accessibility.

These advancements in 2-D electronics printing combined with current research in low-cost 3-D printing are enabling commercial-grade fabrication of devices that typically required clean room environments and expensive manufacturing equipment. Such technology, when made accessible to the masses, has the potential to completely change the way we think about building, interacting with, and even purchasing electronics that can be digitally transmitted and printed.  While the printing technology is currently at a mature stage, we have only scratched the surface of potential applications that can benefit from printing low-cost, flexible electronic devices.