Sniffing Out the Foundational Science of Sensors

This sensor can detect methane at much lower concentrations than current ones. It relies on nanotechnology developed at the Center for Nanoscale Materials, an Office of Science user facility. ( Photo courtesy of Ralu Divan, Argonne National Laboratory )

The human nose can distinguish among a trillion different combinations of smells. Even so, there are plenty of gases that our noses can't detect at the level of sensitivity we need. That's where gaseous sensors come in. While some of the first sensors were animals – like canaries in coal mines – we've since replaced them with technologies that can detect miniscule amounts of chemicals in the air.

Just like our own noses, gaseous sensors are essential for safety and comfort. In factories, gaseous sensors can alert managers to chemical leaks or processes running incorrectly. Outside, they measure pollutants, helping cities monitor air quality. In homes, they keep family members safe. Building managers use measurements from humidity and temperature sensors to maximize energy efficiency.

These sensors wouldn't exist without a fundamental understanding of chemistry and physics. This basic knowledge helps scientists understand how and why sensing materials interact with gaseous chemicals. Many cutting-edge materials have promise for use in sensors, if only scientists can learn how to better produce and control them.

"Sensors are where materials research meets environmental detection," said Pete Beckman, a researcher at Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory (ANL).

To set the groundwork for innovation, the DOE Office of Science funds projects and user facilities that support sensors research.

Creating the Materials for Sensing
Like noses, sensors rely on a combination of components to detect and make sense of gases or chemicals in the air. In humans, molecules float up into your nose and bind to special neurons. Neurons then pass the message up to the brain. In sensors, the material inside the sensor acts as a neuron. When that material interacts with a chemical in the air, it may emit light, change its ability to conduct electricity, or shift shape. The materials and electronics around the sensing material communicate that message to the sensor's "brain," whether that brain is a computer or a warning signal like a siren.

Developing sensors' nervous systems and brains is a job for applied science. Fundamental research like the work at the Office of Science's laboratories sets the foundation for that applied science. In particular, this research is expanding scientists' understanding of the materials themselves and how to produce them.

Three types of cutting-edge materials offer huge potential for use in sensors: nanoparticles, two-dimensional (2D) materials, and metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). Nanoparticles are miniscule particles that are bigger than atoms, but act fundamentally differently from larger particles of the same substance. 2D materials, like graphene, form sheets only a single atom thick. MOFs are compounds made of metal ions linked together by carbon-based connectors.

All of these materials have humongous surface areas compared to their overall sizes. Because lots of gas molecules can interact with their surfaces, they can be sensitive to tiny amounts of chemicals. In addition, scientists can craft all of these materials into a variety of structures. That customization could allow researchers to create specialty materials to detect a particular chemical.

Connecting the Nose to the Body
A great sensing material is essential, but it won't work by itself. Just as a nose needs a body and brain, sensing materials need to be part of a bigger mechanism. Unfortunately, getting these materials to work together within a sensor is often a challenge.

Scientists know that sensors made of nanotubes and nanocrystals could detect as little as one part per million of a gas – if only they can get these two materials to work together.

Ralu Divan and her team at ANL discovered a way to add nanocrystals of zinc oxide – which is already used in sensors – to carbon nanotubes. Sensors that use the two together could be far more sensitive to methane than current technology. By placing the zinc oxide nanocrystals down atom by atom, they created a thin, consistent layer on top of the nanotubes. With this process, companies can precisely control the zinc oxide's thickness and coverage.

To examine the bonds between the nanocrystals and nanotubes, the team relied on the Center for Nanoscale Materials, an Office of Science user facility at ANL. "Having everything in one place has saved a lot of time and we were able to move faster than we expected," said Divan.

As a result, they developed a sensor that could detect much lower concentrations of methane than previous ones. Operators can use it again in seconds instead of minutes or hours.

This sensor improved so much on the existing technology that in 2016, R&D 100 Magazine recognized it as an R&D 100 finalist. The research team is now working with the Array of Things project, a collaboration between the University of Chicago and ANL. As part of the effort to collect real-time data from hundreds of sensors across Chicago, the Array of Things team anticipates using these methane sensors in the future.

Projects such as the Array of Things have the potential to transform cities into networks of sensors, placing digital eyes and noses throughout the built landscape. But these networks and technologies wouldn't be possible without a solid scientific foundation. Nothing may match the human nose's versatility, but research the Office of Science is supporting helps fill in the gaps of our biological capabilities.

Editor’s Note: Shannon Brescher Shea is a Senior Writer/Editor in the Department of Energy Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic energy research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information please visit