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Institute Developing Phone-Linked Graphene Sensors

Wearable graphene sensor patch

Wearable graphene sensor patch (ICFO, Graphene Flagship)

18 Feb. 2019. A research institute is developing sensors made with graphene, worn like a patch on the skin, and connect to a mobile phone to measure key health indicators. ICFO, a photonics research center in Barcelona, Spain is developing the sensors as part of the Graphene Flagship, an EU-funded research initiative that plans to display the devices next week at the 2019 Mobile World Congress, also in Barcelona.

ICFO studies photonics, the science of light generation, transmission, and manipulation. Among the work of the institute is research on sensors, particularly sensors made with graphene and other two-dimensional materials. Graphene is a material closely related to graphite like that used in pencils, one atom in thickness and arrayed in an hexagonal atomic pattern. The material is very light, chemically stable, strong — from 100 to 300 times stronger than steel — and can conduct both heat and electricity, with applications in electronics, energy, manufacturing, and health care. And compared to other materials, graphene is inexpensive to produce.

At Mobile World Congress, the institute plans to unveil 4 prototype sensors made with graphene, including a fitness tracker to measure vital health signs. The fitness tracking sensor is printed on thin flexible plastic and worn like a patch on the skin, containing 6 circuits for data measurement, processing, wireless transmission, and power. The disposable patch measures hydration, oxygen saturation, body temperature, and respiration rate.

A similar patch measures UV exposure from sun light. In both devices, data are then sent to a mobile app that alerts the wearer if specified danger thresholds are crossed. The following video tells more about ICFO’s fitness tracking and UV sensors.

Much of ICFO’s work with graphene sensors applies the material to mass spectrometry, a technology for measuring interactions between light and matter, in this case identifying the composition of chemical samples. In mass spectrometry, chemical samples are showered with electrons to ionize their particles, then sent through a magnetic field that separates the particles for measurement and classification to determine their composition. At Mobile World Congress, ICFO plans to display prototype small-scale spectrometer sensors that can identify counterfeit drugs or help consumers determine ingredients in food products.

Like the fitness tracker, the portable spectrometer connects to a smartphone, but in this case also uses the phone’s camera. “Made up of hundreds of thousands of photodetectors, this incredibly small sensor is highly sensitive to UV and infrared light,” says Frank Koppens, who leads ICFO’s Quantum Nano-Optoelectronic group, in a Graphene Flagship statement.

“This technology,” Koppens adds, “would allow users in the supermarket to hold the camera to fruit and infer which is the most fresh piece. Or, in a more extreme example, the camera could be used for driving in dangerously dense fog by providing augmented outlines of surrounding vehicles on the windscreen.”

Graphene Flagship brings together academic and industry researchers to accelerate graphene applications from university or institute labs into the marketplace. It’s Europe’s largest research initiative with a budget of €1 billion.

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