Rensselaer Research Review Winter 2010-11
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Graphene Foam Detects Explosives, Emissions Better Than Today’s Gas Sensors
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A new study from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute demonstrates how graphene foam can outperform leading commercial gas sensors in detecting potentially dangerous and explosive chemicals. The discovery opens the door for a new generation of gas sensors to be used by bomb squads, law enforcement officials, defense organizations, and in various industrial settings.

The new sensor successfully and repeatedly measured ammonia (NH3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) at concentrations as small as 20 parts-per-million. Made from continuous graphene nanosheets that grow into a foam-like structure about the size of a postage stamp and thickness of felt, the sensor is flexible, rugged, and finally overcomes the shortcomings that have prevented nanostructure-based gas detectors from reaching the marketplace.

* Growing Graphene Video Podcast

YouTube video by Nikhil Koratkar on his research.

Results of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports, published by Nature Publishing Group.

“We are very excited about this new discovery, which we think could lead to new commercial gas sensors,” said Rensselaer Engineering Professor Nikhil Koratkar, who co-led the study along with Professor Hui-Ming Cheng at the Shenyang National Laboratory for Materials Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “So far, the sensors have shown to be significantly more sensitive at detecting ammonia and nitrogen dioxide at room temperature than the commercial gas detectors on the market today.”

Over the past decade researchers have shown that individual nanostructures are extremely sensitive to chemicals and different gases. To build and operate a device using an individual nanostructure for gas detection, however, has proven to be far too complex, expensive, and unreliable to be commercially viable, Koratkar said. Such an endeavor would involve creating and manipulating the position of the individual nanostructure, locating it using microscopy, using lithography to apply gold contacts, followed by other slow, costly steps. Embedded within a handheld device, such a single nanostructure can be easily damaged and rendered inoperable. Additionally, it can be challenging to “clean” the detected gas from the single nanostructure.

Macroscale Size Surmounts Obstacles

The new postage stamp-sized structure developed by Koratkar has all of the same attractive properties as an individual nanostructure, but is much easier to work with because of its large, macroscale size. Koratkar’s collaborators at the Chinese Academy of Sciences grew graphene on a structure of nickel foam. After removing the nickel foam, what’s left is a large, free-standing network of foam-like graphene. Essentially a single layer of the graphite found commonly in our pencils or the charcoal we burn on our barbeques, graphene is an atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged like a nanoscale chicken-wire fence. The walls of the foam-like graphene sensor are comprised of continuous graphene sheets without any physical breaks or interfaces between the sheets.

Koratkar and his students developed the idea to use this graphene foam structure as a gas detector. As a result of exposing the graphene foam to air contaminated with trace amounts of ammonia or nitrogen dioxide, the researchers found that the gas particles stuck, or adsorbed, to the foam’s surface. This change in surface chemistry has a distinct impact upon the electrical resistance of the graphene. Measuring this change in resistance is the mechanism by which the sensor can detect different gases.

Additionally, the graphene foam gas detector is very convenient to clean. By applying a ~100 milliampere current through the graphene structure, Koratkar’s team was able to heat the graphene foam enough to unattach, or desorb, all of the adsorbed gas particles. This cleaning mechanism has no impact on the graphene foam’s ability to detect gases, which means the detection process is fully reversible and a device based on this new technology would be low power — no need for external heaters to clean the foam — and reusable.

Koratkar chose ammonia as a test gas to demonstrate the proof-of-concept for this new detector. Ammonium nitrate is present in many explosives and is known to gradually decompose and release trace amounts of ammonia. As a result, ammonia detectors are often used to test for the presence of an explosive. A toxic gas, ammonia also is used in a variety of industrial and medical processes, for which detectors are necessary to monitor for leaks.

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“Graphene Foam Detects Explosives, Emissions
Better Than Today’s Gas Sensors”
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