Graphene Revolution

The Wonderful Material That Will Change
the World of Electronics

The amazing properties of graphene have researchers, students, and inventors dreaming about exciting new applications, from unbreakable touchscreens to fast-charging batteries.

By Wisse Hettinga

Prosthetic hand with graphene electrodes

Prosthetic hand with graphene electrodes

Graphene gained popularity because of the way it is produced—the “Scotch tape method.” In fact, two scientists, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, received a Nobel Prize in 2004 for their work with the material. Their approach is straightforward. Using Scotch tape, they repeatedly removed small layers of graphite (indeed, the black stuff found in pencils) until there was only one 2-D layer of atoms left—graphene. Up to that point, many scientists understood the promise of this wonderful material, but no one had been able to get obtain a single layer of atoms. After the breakthrough, many universities started looking for graphene-related applications.

Innovative graphene-related research is underway all over the world. Today, many European institutes and universities work together under the Graphene Flagship initiative (http://graphene-flagship.eu), which was launched by the European Union in 2009. The initiative’s aim is to exchange knowledge and collaborate on research projects.

Graphene was a hot topic at the 2017 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain. This article covers a select number of applications talked about at the show. But for the complete coverage, check out the video here:

WEARABLE SENSORS FOR PROSTHETICS

The Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genova, Italy, recently developed a sensor from a cellulose and graphene composite. The sensor can be made in the form of a bracelet that fits around the arm in order to pick up the small signals associated with muscle movement. The signals are processed and used to drive a robotic prosthetic hand. Once the comfortable bracelet is placed on the wrist, it transduces the movement of the hand into electrical signals that are used to move the artificial hand in a spectacular way. More information: www.iit.it

GRAPHENE & CONVENTIONAL CMOS TECHNOLOGIES

The Scotch tape method used by the Nobel Prize winners inspired a lot of companies around the world to start producing graphene. Today, a wide variety of methods can be used depending on the actual application of the material. Graphenea (San Sebastian, Spain) is using different processes for the production of graphene products. One of them is Chemical Vapor Deposition. With this method, it is possible to create graphene on thin foil, silicon based or in form of oxide. They source many universities and research institutes that do R&D for new components such as supercapacitors, solar, batteries, and many more applications. The big challenge is to develop an industrial process that will combine graphene material with the conventional CMOS technology. In this way, the characteristics of graphene can enhance today’s components to make them useful for new applications. A good example is optical datatransfer. More information: www.graphenea.com

Transfer graphene on top of a silicon device to add more functionality

Transfer graphene on top of a silicon device to add more functionality

T5G DATA COMMUNICATION

High-speed data communication comes in all sizes and infrastructures. But on the small scale, there are many challenges. Graphene enables new optical communication on the chip level. A consortium of CNIT, Ericsson, Nokia, and IMEC have developed graphene photonics integration for high-speed transmission systems. At MWC, they showcased a packaged graphene-based modulator operating over several optical telecommunications bands. I saw the first package transmitters with optical modulators based on graphene. The modulator is only one-tenth of a millimeter. The transfer capacity is 10 Gbps, but the aim is to bring that to 100 Gbps in a year’s time. The applications will be able to play a key role in the development of 5G technology. More information: www.cnit.it/en/.

Optical modulator based on graphene technology

Optical modulator based on graphene technology

THE ART OF HEATING

FGV Cambridge Nanosystems recently developed a novel “spray-on” graphene heating system that provides uniform, large-area heating. The material can be applied to paintings or walls and turned into a ‘heating’ area that can be wirelessly controlled via a mobile app. The same methodology can also double as a temperature sensor, where you can control light intensity by sensing body temperature. More information: www.cambridgenanosystems.com

Graphene-based heater

Graphene-based heater

FOAM SENSOR FOR SHOES

Atheletes can benefit from light, strong, sensor-based shoes that that can monitor their status. To make this happen, the University of Cambridge developed a 3-D printed shoe with embedded graphene foam sensors that can monitor the pressure applied. They combine complicated structural design with accurate sensing function. The graphene foam sensor can be used for measuring the number of steps and the weight of the person. More information: www.cam.ac.uk

Graphene pressure sensors embedded in shoes

Graphene pressure sensors embedded in shoes

FLEXIBLE WI-FI RECEIVER

More wireless fidelity can be expected when graphene-based receivers come into play. The receivers based on graphene are small and flexible and can be used for integration into clothes and other textile applications. AMO GmbH and RWTH Aachen University are developing the first flexible Wi-Fi receiver. The underlying graphene MMIC process enables the fabrication of the Wi-Fi receiver on both flexible and rigid substrates. This flexible Wi-Fi receiver is the first graphene-based front-end receiver for any type of modulated signal. The research shows that this technology can be used up to 90 GHz, which opens it up to new applications in IoT and mobile phones. More information: www.amo.de

Using graphene in flexible Wi-Fi receiver

Using graphene in flexible Wi-Fi receiver

5″ DISPLAY WITH UP TO 12K RESOLUTION

Santiago Cartamil-Bueno, a PhD student at TU Delft, was the first to observe a change in colors of small graphene “balloons.” These balloons appear when pressure is applied in a double layer of graphene. When this graphene is placed over silicon with small indents, the balloons can move in and out the silicon dents. If the graphene layer is closer to the silicon, they turn blue. If it is farther away from the silicon, they will turn red. Santiago observed this effect first and is researching the possibilities to turn this effect into high-resolution display. It uses the light from the environment and turns it into a very low-power consumption process. The resolution is very high; a typical 5″ display would be able to show images with 8K to 12K resolution. More information:
www.delta.tudelft.nl/artikel/ballooning-graphene-may-be-used-as-pixel/32619

Creativity Lives Here

An Interview with Jean Noel Lefebvre

With the proliferation of affordable ‘Net-connected technologies during the last decade, the nontechnical members of society have come to realize that electrical engineering is an exceedingly creative endeavor. Outside-the-box innovators like Jean Noel Lefebvre are literally reinventing how we interact with the world around us.

By Wisse Hettinga

Lefebvre-P1

Jean Noel Lefebvre is an electronics engineer with a strong interest in how people interact with the electronic systems. A true outside-the-box thinker, started his company, Ootsidebox (www.ootsidebox.fr), right in the middle of the YouFactory fab lab in Lyon, France. He knows where creativity lives and is willing to show it to you. Meet Jean Noel Lefebvre.

HETTINGA: Why do you have your office in the middle of the fab lab?

LEFEBVRE: The fab lab here is a wonderful place where people can come to do some 3-D printing, laser cutting, or to work with electronics. But perhaps more importantly, it is a place where you can meet other people, where you can learn new skills and find new ideas and inspiration.

HETTINGA: That is important for you—the interaction between technology and others?

LEFEBVRE: Yes, that has always been part of my projects. My first invention was the Ootside box. It was a touch application and it allowed you to control a computer or a system just by pointing or with gestures. We tried raising enough funds on Indigogo to continue developing it, but unfortunately, we did not reach our targets. After that, I decided to name my company after this project. Through this project, I also discovered the Arduino ecosystem and the enormously inspiring world of makers and fab labs. I always was interested in electronics, but when you are very young, you have no idea what you are doing and all my radios and sound equipment failed. That is what I learn here—how to help people, sometimes young people, understand how electronics works.

Lefebvre-P2

HETTINGA: And what do they need to learn?

LEFEBVRE: Good soldering! If you learn good soldering, you are already halfway to a successful project. I sometimes do soldering classes in schools. I bring some easy soldering projects and some equipment, and it is very rewarding to see how the kids are able to make their first electronic project.

HETTINGA: You are a big fan of Arduino.

LEFEBVRE: Indeed. The Arduino platform and ecosystem is important because of its low threshold to the world of electronics. Arduino is even so important and valuable that I decided to make a real gold version, the Golduino. I have it here, and it is still work in progress, but for people who want to have something special and valuable, it will be a great thing to have or to give to others.

Lefebvre-P3

HETTINGA: Again, I see you have a special take on electronics. And again, this refers to a special interaction between people and electronics.

LEFEBVRE: I feel that is very important. The world of technology can make people alone and isolated with very little room for emotions. Take the IoT developments as an example. You can see it as a world of sensors, actuators, and huge amounts of data. You can easily get lost. To find a response to that, I am doing a special project called “Color the World.” It will be a Wi-Fi-connected lamp that will take the color of everything you hold in front of it. In the back, there will be a world map where you can “share” you color with others and color the world. On Earth Day you can all decide to color the world green, make your part of the world yellow if the sun shines, or blue if the world is “blue.”

HETTINGA: And you found a way to keep playing your old EP records?

LEFEBVRE: Ha, yes. If you are like me, you will still have your old EP vinyl records, but no easy way to play them anymore. With my Floating Disc Player, you will be able to use the cover of the EP to play your favorite music again. Inside the EP cover, there is an RFID tag, and the moment you insert the EP in the player, it will recognize the song in the playlist and start the music. It is a great player for home parties!

Lefebvre-P4

HETTINGA: What more are you working on?

LEFEBVRE: Again, it is interaction, I am afraid. I am making an interface for the Airbar. The Airbar is an infrared sensor bar that originally was developed to turn your laptop screen into a touch screen. With my interface, it will be possible to turn everything like desks, whiteboards, displays, and windows into interactive areas. You can draw a piano keyboard on a piece of paper, launch the application, and you can start playing by just touching the paper. The resolution is good enough to recognize your writing on plain paper, turn that into a digital pattern, and display that in an application.
HETTINGA: This will all be available for others?

LEFEBVRE: Yes, it will be available on my website www.ootsidebox.fr. It will be all open source, so everyone who is interested can continue developing the product.

HETTINGA: You know where creativity lives?

LEFEBVRE: Yes, that’s easy. It lives where open-minded people come together and want to share their ideas with others. That is why fab labs, tech shops, and makerspaces are important—open places where people can walk in, have a coffee and a chat, and go away with new ideas.