Do you often wonder how much air pollution is around you? A low-cost nanosensor developed by Indian Institute of Science (IISc) researchers may be the answer to designing cheaper gas sensing devices.

The IISc team developed the highly sensitive nanosensor using a fabrication technique that leaves out lithography—a time-consuming and costly process—to build a honeycomb-like structure made up of zinc oxide. This lithography-less technique also significantly cuts down the time and cost involved in making nanostructured gas sensors.

The team comprises Chandra Shekhar Prajapati, postdoctoral fellow, and Navakanta Bhat, Chair & Professor, Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE), IISc, along with researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden (IISc team shown above is Navakanta Bhat (centre) with his current team, including those who did not work on the device.).

For environmental applications, gas sensors need to be both highly sensitive (detect very low levels) and selective (detect a specific gas in the presence of other gases). The researchers developed sensors with varying honeycomb wall width, and found that the one with the smallest width (~100nm) was able to detect a change of even 500 parts per billion (ppb) in CO concentration. When tested with a mixture of gases, the sensor also showed a distinctly greater response for CO. The technology is seen to be a game-changer in environmental pollution monitoring.

“The size of the sensor itself is less than 1mm,” said Bhat. “If you combine it with the rest of the signal processing electronics and a small display, it may not be more than a couple of centimetres. This can be integrated with a cell phone, or imagine a small device at every traffic signal that can transmit the data to your cell phone through Bluetooth.”

Conventional micro-machined CO sensors have a flat layer of zinc oxide, a metal oxide semiconductor, through which current flows. When exposed to CO, the resistance of the layer changes, affecting the amount of current flowing through. How much the resistance changes can be mapped to how much CO there is.

Polystrene 'jugaad' builds nano-structures

Creating nanostructures on flat zinc oxide improves the sensitivity, as the area available for gas interaction increases. However, making these nanosensors using traditional lithography, a multi-step process where metal oxide templates are etched on a light-sensitive material, requires sophisticated equipment and is time-consuming.

Instead, the researchers used tiny beads of polystyrene that arrange themselves into a closely packed layer when spread on an oxidised silicon surface. When zinc oxide is added, it settles into the hexagonal gaps between the beads. When the beads are then “lifted off”, what remains is a 3D honeycomb of zinc oxide, with a much larger surface area available for gas interaction than a flat plate.

201707_EETI_NanoscaleSensor_Polystyrene_IISc_cr Figure 1: Schematic illustration of the fabrication flow to obtain ZnO honey-comb structure; (a) silicon substrate (b) oxidised silicon (c) polystyrene (PS) spheres' self-assembly on oxidised silicon, (d) ZnO deposition on PS spheres as a mask, (e) ZnO honey-comb like structure after the lift-off of the PS spheres and (f) metal-contact for gas sensing measurement.  

The technique could cost significantly less than lithography-based methods, the researchers said. “You can buy a packet of these micron-sized polystyrene beads in the market for Rs. 4000-5000, which can be used to create nanostructures on thousands of sensors. This results in significant cost reduction compared to traditional lithography-based techniques to form such honeycombs,” said Prajapati. The process also only takes a few minutes, while lithography-based multi-step methods can take a few hours, he added.

The polystyrene-based method can be used to develop similar honeycomb nanostructures for other metal oxides to detect other gases, the researchers say. “What we have is a generic platform. You can do the same nano-structuring for different metal oxide semiconductor sensors,” said Bhat.

Bhat and his team have been working on developing miniature sensors for air quality monitoring for several years. They previously developed a hybrid sensor array to detect four different gases simultaneously.

The study was funded by the Swedish Research Council and the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.

Editor's Note: Jugaad is slang that describes either a certain resourcefulness or its object. It often refers to a cheap or makeshift setup out of necesssity.