NASA is working on graphene sensors to detect trace gases and sense strain. The original article was published in the fall 2012 issue of “CuttingEdge“, the emerging technologies bulletin of NASA’s Goddard space flight center.
The sensors are to be made from CVD graphene grown in-house, which is not surprising, but still not good news for graphene companies. Judging by the statements given by NASA researchers in the article, the research is indeed just in the beginning – NASA has learned how to control their CVD growth, however all the sensor research remains to be done.
The goals are set high: scientist emeritus Fred Herrero envisions that NASA will be able to count how often oxygen molecules hit the sensors. This implies sensitivities near single-molecule level, which I don’t think has been shown until now. As with all other things NASA does, there is the additional challenge of making the devices compatible with space travel. However, for a start, NASA doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel – they can probably learn much from the recent patent application by Honda that shows graphene gas sensors with remarkable sensitivity. One of the uses for the NASA gas sensor would be to detect collisions of oxygen molecules with a spacecraft. Such collisions damage and deteriorate the spacecraft build materials.
Similarly, NASA are working on strain sensors for their spacecraft. This function is even more fascinating to me. Either NASA will use some kind of suspended graphene membrane, or something along the lines of the recently shown strain-induced bandgap, i.e. change in electrical and optoelectronic properties. Either way, they will have to develop something that can sustain the tremendous strain experienced by an aircraft in the Earth’s atmosphere, yet sensitive enough to minute changes experienced in space.
Finally, the team hopes to manufacture not only the active part of the sensors, but also the leads and the rest of the device from graphene. This will be an amazing feat and I am looking forward to following further developments in NASA’s graphene research.
Original article: CuttingEdge, page 10