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21 March, 2017 - 00:14 By Kate Sweeney

Ten year plan for Graphene commercialisation on track

University of Cambridge scientists, in conjunction with tech industry experts, have developed a novel graphene-based infrared (IR) detector with record high sensitivity for thermal detection. The technology paves the way for high-performance IR imaging and spectroscopy.

The work was undertaken as part of a collaboration within the Graphene Flagship – the European research consortium aiming to bring graphene technologies to commercial markets within ten years. 

Collaborators included the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona and the University of Ioannina in Greece, as well as Nokia UK and Emberion, who are local industrial partners of the Cambridge Graphene Centre.

Published in Nature Communications, the team’s efforts demonstrate the highest reported temperature sensitivity for graphene-based uncooled thermal detectors, capable of resolving temperature changes down to a few tens of µK. Only a few nanowatts of IR radiation power are required to produce such a small temperature variation in isolated devices, about 1000 times smaller than the IR power delivered to the detector by a human hand in close proximity.

Emberion, based at Sheraton House on Castle Park in Cambridge develops and produces graphene photonics and electronics that it says will revolutionise infrared photodetectors and thermal sensors in applications ranging from hyperspectral and thermal imaging to night vision and X-ray detection. The Emberion team demonstrated their new detector evaluation kit at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona recently.

Emberion focuses on design and productisation of high-performance optoelectronics based on graphene, other nanomaterials and CMOS integrated circuits. In addition to its product business, Emberion engages in technology licensing and can deliver integrated end products.

It has R & D sites in Cambridge, UK, and Espoo, Finland with 20 world-leading experts. The company spun-out of Nokia’s R & D in Finland and the UK, based on private equity funding and spin-out expertise from VersoVentures and was co-founded with Emberion employees.

The new graphene-based IR detector devices consist of a pyroelectric substrate, with a conductive channel of single-layer graphene and a floating gate electrode placed on top. In pyroelectric materials, changes in temperature lead to a spontaneous electric field inside the material. 

The floating gate electrode concentrates this field on the graphene, and the field causes changes in the electrical resistance of the graphene, which are measured as the device output. Typical IR photodetectors operate either via the pyroelectric effect, or as bolometers, which measure changes in resistance due to heating. The graphene-based pyroelectric bolometers combine both effects for excellent performance and could be used as pixels in a high resolution thermal imaging camera.

Graphene acts as a built-in amplifier for the pyroelectric signal, without needing external transistor amplifiers as in typical pyroelectric thermal detectors. This direct integration means that there are no losses and no additional noise from connections to external amplifying circuits. “We can build the amplifier directly on the pyroelectric material. So, all the charge that it develops goes to the amplifier. There is nothing lost along the way,” said Dr Alan Colli of Emberion, co-author of the work.

The use of graphene also offers benefits for further integrating the detector pixels with the external readout integrated circuit (ROIC) used to interface with the detector pixels and the recording device. “To match the input impedance of the ROIC, you need something that is as conductive as possible. 

The intrinsic conductivity of graphene helps the further integration with silicon,” said Colli. Impedance matching is essential to ensure that the signal is transmitted as efficiently as possible. This benefit is unique to graphene due to its combination of high conductivity and strong field effect.

The high sensitivity will be key for spectroscopic applications beyond thermal imaging, such as in security screening. Current IR photodetectors rely on integrated background IR radiation to provide a signal, and are not useful for spectroscopy. With a high-performance graphene IR detector that gives an excellent signal with less incident radiation, it is possible to isolate different parts of the IR spectrum. 

“With a higher sensitivity detector, then you can restrict the band and still form an image just by using photons in a very narrow spectral range, and you can do multi-spectral IR imaging. For security screening, there are specific signatures that materials emit or absorb in narrow bands. So, you want a detector that’s trained in that narrow band. This can be useful while looking for explosives, hazardous substances, or anything of the sort,” explained Colli.

Dr Daniel Neumaier of AMO, Germany is the leader of the Graphene Flagship Electronics and Photonics Integration Division. He said: “The market size of IR detectors has increased dramatically in the last couple of years and these devices are entering more and more application areas. 

“In particular, spectroscopic security screening is becoming more important. This requires high sensitivity under room temperature operation. The present work is a huge step forward in meeting these requirements in graphene-based IR detectors.”

The devices are set to make a clear impact in IR spectroscopic imaging, according to Professor Andrea Ferrari (pictured), Head of the Cambridge Graphene Centre, Chair of the Graphene Flagship’s Management Panel and co-author of the research. 

He said: “This work is another example of the steady march of graphene on the roadmap towards applications. Emberion is a new company created to produce graphene photonics and electronics for infrared photodetectors and thermal sensors, and this work exemplifies how basic science and technology can lead to swift commercialisation.”

Kiss Communications

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