Graphene gives photodetector fuller spectrum of light sensing

Engineers have used graphene to create a photodetector that works with more types of light than its current counterparts.


Developed at UCLA’s Samueli School of Engineering, the device is said also to have superior sensing and imaging capabilities.

The versatility and usefulness of photodetectors depends largely on their operating speed, their sensitivity to lower levels of light, and how much of the spectrum they can sense. Typically, when engineers have improved a photodetector’s capabilities in any one of those areas, at least one of the two other capabilities is diminished.

The photodetector designed by the UCLA team is claimed to have major improvements in all three areas as it operates across a broad range of light, processes images more quickly, and is more sensitive to low levels of light than current technology.

“Our photodetector could extend the scope and potential uses of photodetectors in imaging and sensing systems,” said Mona Jarrahi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, who led the study. “It could dramatically improve thermal imaging in night vision or in medical diagnosis applications where subtle differences in temperatures can give doctors a lot of information on their patients. It could also be used in environmental sensing technologies to more accurately identify the concentration of pollutants.”

The study was published in Light: Science and Applications.

Microscope image of the photodetector (Jarrahi Research Group/UCLA)

The new photodetector takes advantage of the properties of graphene, which is an excellent material for detecting photons because absorbs energy from a broad swath of the electromagnetic spectrum from ultraviolet light to visible light to the infrared and microwave bands. Graphene is also a very good conductor of electricity.

To form the photodetector, the researchers laid strips of graphene over a silicon dioxide layer, which itself covers a base of silicon. Then, they created a series of comb-like nanoscale patterns, made of gold, with “teeth” about 100nm wide.

The graphene acts as a net to catch incoming photons and then convert them into an electrical signal. The gold comb-shaped nanopatterns quickly transfer that information into a processor, which in turn produces a corresponding high-quality image, even under low-light conditions.

“We specifically designed the dimensions of the graphene nanostripes and their metal patches such that incoming visible and infrared light is tightly confined inside them,” said Semih Cakmakyapan, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar and the lead author of the study. “This design efficiently produces an electrical signal that follows ultrafast and subtle variations in the light’s intensity over the entire spectral range, from visible to infrared.”