Graphene used to revolutionise thermal and night vision imaging

Night vision technology made possible through the use of graphene could become common place on phones according to researchers at MIT - image courtesy of DFC

Infrared and night vision technology could be part of future smartphones thanks to a new design that uses graphene and was developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The new ‘night-vision’ development by the MIT research team has the potential to be integrated in every smart phone and laptop.

To achieve this potential breakthrough in thermal imaging technology, the MIT team focused on graphene and how it could be used to build a new category of infrared devices.

To create such a device, their version of a thermal imaging system, the MIT researchers created a thermal sensor using a square piece of graphene (a chip) and a MEMs micromachine.

The graphene-based sensor processes the incoming thermal signal and converts it to electrical signals that are transmitted to the rest of the device

The resulting infrared sensors were small enough that they could be ‘integrated in every cellphone and every laptop”, according to the MIT research study’s co-author Tomas Palacios.

The use of graphene to create a potential breakthrough in thermal imaging technology was born out of a desire to create more accessible and efficient thermal imaging devices.

Graphene is a semi-conducting material that is 100 times stronger than steel, and is an excellent conductor of both electricity and heat.

Graphene does away with cryogenics

A close up of Graphene molecular mesh.
A close up of Graphene molecular mesh.

This quality when applied in the new MIT infrared device made it possible for the sensor to filter out background heat without using a cooling system.

This allowed the sensor to detect a heat signature without requiring a refrigerant to keep the sensor’s environment cool.

The new device’s ability to detect a heat signature without the need for cooling (thanks to graphene’s heat conducting capabilities) is a significant advantage over existing thermal imaging devices such as night vision goggles, which are expensive and bulky because they require cryogenic cooling.

The self-cooling function was also achieved by strips of graphene being used to carry the signals and suspend the sensor over an air pocket, away from the rest of the device.

The new self-cooling device paves the way for smaller and more flexible thermal imaging systems.

The MIT team who developed the new thermal imaging device had their research papers and findings published in the American Chemical Society (ACS) journal Nano Letters.

Integrated into everyday life

The MIT researchers predict the technology could revolutionise the fields of computing and mobile phone technology.

The new device will not only help police, search and rescue teams and soldiers in their important work, but could also help people navigate their everyday lives.

It would also help with the functioning of future technology, with superior night vision technology crucial to products such as autonomous vehicles, in that it gives them the ability to ‘see’ in the dark.

In an interview with Live Science, co-author of the MIT research study papers, Tomas Palacios, said the new technology would be integrated into every-day life.

“The advantage of significantly reducing the cost and increasing the performance of infrared imagers is that now you can start introducing these camera in many new places,” he said.

“For example, in the future, we can have infrared detectors integrated in every cellphone and every laptop. That means that in the future, you can control them just by waving your hand in front of them.

“The sensors could also one day be integrated into the windshields of vehicles, giving you night-vision systems in real time without blocking a driver’s regular view of the road.”

The new smaller and more flexible thermal imaging technology can be also be used to create efficient and inexpensive infrared detectors that can easily identify hand and body-based gestures.

Palacios said the new device was a more efficient alternative than current sensor technologies.

“It takes a lot of computing power to identify where your hands are and how they’re moving,” he said.

“By using an infrared sensor, imaging of the body is simplified, since it’s very easy for thermal imaging to identify the contours of the human body with respect to backgrounds, which tend to be at lower temperature.”