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New Type of Graphene Circuit Designed for Biosensors

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Graphene illustration


16 July 2018. The May 2018 chart in a report from CB Insights, a technology market intelligence company, had the ominous headline “Graphene deals steadily increased before dropping off,” showing an abrupt drop in venture investment funds for start-up companies in 2017 to $2 million, from its peak of $36 million just 2 years earlier. The report notes that, “The drop reflects a loss of traction typical in advanced materials development, where technology gets bogged down between breakthrough and commercialization.”

It’s not that graphene lacks inherent properties that make it a highly desirable material for today’s high performance technology. Graphene is a carbon material closely related to graphite like that used in pencils, but it consists of only a single layer of atoms arrayed in a hexagonal mesh pattern. The material is very light, strong, chemically stable, and can conduct both heat and electricity, with applications in fields such as electronics, energy, and health care.

For graphene to regain that market traction may require developing more applications that use a combination of its desirable properties. One of those emerging needs is for biosensors that can detect electrical and physiological signals in the human body, which require a high degree of sensitivity. As reported in Science & Enterprise in June, for example, researchers at University of California in San Diego enhanced the ability of graphene electrodes to better record optical images of brain activity, which they demonstrated in lab mice.

A more direct application of graphene in sensors for health care are field effect transistors, also known as graphene fets. These circuits have a semiconductor a channel with 3 electrodes, a source and drain electrode or terminal, connected by a gate electrode that controls the flow between the other 2 terminals. Graphene is used in the channel between the source and drain. Tests with graphene fets show a high degree of sensitivity needed in bio sensors.

One of those studies, conducted by University of Plymouth in the U.K., found sensors based on graphene fets could detect low concentrations of human chorionic gonadotropin, a protein biomarker for some types of cancers. But an even more urgent need for graphene may be in sensors for detecting opioid drug compounds. In another study led by physicists at University of Pennsylvania, researchers found graphene fets sensors could detect weak concentrations of naltrexone, an opioid receptor antagonist.

These high-priority health care needs may provide the commercial traction graphene needs to fulfill its promises as a wonder material.

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