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Science Center's Graphene Frontiers Finds Applications for a New Wonder Material

December 15, 2015  |  

First isolated in a lab in 2004, graphene is an atom-thick layer of carbon with remarkable properties. It is stronger than steel, an efficient conductor of heat and electricity, and nearly transparent. But only a year ago, the New Yorker asked, "Graphene may be the most remarkable substance ever discovered. But what’s it for?"
 
Graphene Frontiers, a University City Science Centercompany, has been hard at work answering that question. They have developed proprietary and patented techniques for manufacturing, handling and making devices with graphene, notably biosensors that can diagnose a wide array of diseases, with other potential applications in homeland security, defense, health and fitness, food safety, environmental monitoring and more.
 
The company was founded in 2010 at the UPStart program at the University of Pennsylvania and moved to the Science Center in 2012, where it employs 11 and occupies three laboratories.
 
The company's core innovation, according to CEO Mike Patterson, is the ability to "grow" graphene and efficiently transfer the material onto a silicon wafer to create devices called graphene field effect transistors (GFETs) that are effective sensors for chemicals and biomolecules.
 
"The GFET is a relatively simple electrical device with a strip of graphene (‘channel’) as the key element," he explains. "This channel is about 10 microns in length, which is 1/10 the width of a human hair. Using biochemistry, we can attach things like antibodies to the graphene to make the GFET specifically sensitive to only one thing."
 
To make a GFET a sensor for, say, cancer, Graphene Frontiers can attach antibodies for cancer biomarkers.

“When we expose the sensor to a sample like blood or saliva, the target molecule will bind to the antibodies on the graphene," he continues, "and we can see a change in the properties of the GFET sensor." 

So far, GFETs have effectively measured the bacterium that causes Lyme's Disease, Salmonella and others. GFETS can also be assembled in a sensor array to simultaneously perform multiple tests.
 
Patterson says the company is currently in pilot production for the devices, and expects to have sensors on the market for research use as early as next year. Graphene Frontiers is also developing a vapor-phase (gas) sensor that uses single-strand DNA instead of antibodies.
 
"Our mission," he adds, "is to make the world safer and healthier with graphene technology."

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.