Graphene sheets, the fabric of IoT?

Researchers hope ultrathin, light-absorbent graphene sheets will provide the high-quality sensing and power required to reach the full potential of IoT and other smart tech.

Researchers at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England, said their development of ultrathin, patterned graphene sheets is the kind of advancement that will power huge leaps in multiple areas, including computing and Internet of Things technologies.

"The possibilities are tremendous, depending on the sector you want to look at," said professor Ravi Silva, head of the British university's Advanced Technology Institute. "With this, we're looking at creating the next generation of nanodevices. We can talk about everyday sensors. From our device point of view, it will enable high-quality sensing and allow you to have solar cells that can capture the energy needed to transmit information when required. From an electronic device point of view, it's a significant step in being able to control, capture and store energy. This technology will, more or less, allow us to realize the full potential of the Internet of Things."

First isolated in 2004, graphene is a highly conductive allotrope of carbon whose atoms are arranged in a mesh-like form that's a single atom thick. It's incredibly strong, although it's inefficient at light absorption.

But University of Surrey scientists used nanotexturing to grow graphene around a textured metallic surface to create these new ultrathin graphene sheets that enhance the material's light-absorption capabilities by approximately 90%. Silva said the inspiration for these graphene sheets came from moth eyes, which have microscopic patterning that allows them to see in the dimmest conditions.

Ravi Silva, head of the Advanced Technology Institute, University of SurreyRavi Silva

Silva said the importance of this breakthrough comes from the applications these graphene sheets can enable. He said he envisions coating solar cells with this material to harvest energy from very dim light; or using the material on "smart wallpaper" or "smart windows" to generate electricity from waste light or heat; or creating new types of sensors that could be part of the Internet of Things chain. For example, these sheets could also power smart clothing or wearables by providing the method for miniature embedded devices to capture and store the energy they need to do their jobs, he said.

"The next step is really about working with partners and, in particular, industrial partners," Silva said. "We have a concept with a prototype, but we need to develop this as a technology. We need companies involved in energy capture, energy storage [and] optical devices that need to be miniaturized. What we have is an enabler that will allow more efficient energy transfers: for example, solar cells or thermal electronic devices that need to capture energy in the ambient."

He added, "What we now need to do is see how to best use that energy with new devices and technologies built below it."

The University of Surrey scientists published their research in the Feb. 26, 2016, edition of Science Advances.

The interest in graphene is intense. For the past decade, researchers have been hyping its potential applications in displays, computer chips and other electronics. IBM and Samsung are among the companies leading the foray into commercial uses of this material. For example, in January 2014, a team from IBM Research made and tested the world's first multistage graphene RF receiver, and the most sophisticated graphene-integrated circuit to date. The device's performance is 10,000 times better than previously reported efforts for graphene-integrated circuits. Meanwhile, the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, Samsung Electronics' core research and development incubator, developed a transistor structure utilizing graphene.

It's a kind of wonder material that can do a lot of amazing things. ... But we're not there yet. Right now, it's more in the technology development phase.
E.H. Yangprofessor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology

Other companies, research institutions and universities are similarly pursuing graphene research.

"It's a kind of wonder material that can do a lot of amazing things," said E.H. Yang, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

But Yang cautioned against banking on graphene's promise to bring revolution any time soon. He noted that while many scientists are very optimistic about the material's potential, others are more skeptical. He said his opinion falls in the middle of the two, saying he sees graphene and other similar materials having the potential to enable cheaper, better and more efficient devices.

"But we're not there yet. Right now, it's more in the technology development phase," he said. "There's hype, but nothing has happened in this area yet."

Read Pratt’s interview with Professor Silva: "Cutting-edge research: Graphene sheets for capturing and storing energy."

About the author:
Mary K. Pratt, a freelance writer based in Massachusetts, writes frequently about business management and information technology. She can be reached at 
marykpr[email protected].

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