In recent years, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have been touted as the miracle cure for just about every industry, from flexible electronics to body armor. The lightweight and strong nanomaterial has the potential to be a disruptive force, but implementation at scale has eluded many developers. It can be challenging to move the technology out of the lab and into production.

Somalytics is a company that could disrupt the digital sensor industry. In partnership with the University of Washington, they use carbon paper to create tiny, sensitive devices that can be used to measure changes in capacitance. This is not ordinary carbon paper, however. The process starts with paper made of CNTs mixed with cellulose fibers. This highly-conductive material is then wetted with water then pulled apart to fracture the paper. This process creates millions of exposed sensors in a device that is just 1 mm square. This tiny device can then be encased in polymer to protect the sensors.

The devices can be used as proximity sensors by measuring changes in capacitance. Most proximity sensors detect objects such as a human finger at distances of 3 to 30 mm; think of elevator buttons or a typical touchscreen. In contrast, the Somalytics sensors have a range of to 200 mm (about 8 inches). According to the company, the sensors can detect both speed and proximity with a latency of 1 ms. This means that it can detect hand gestures in three dimensions; just imagine what you could do with that beyond the tap, swipe, and pinch 2D gestures on a typical smartphone.

The company sees a wide range of applications for these devices. The are more sensitive with a great range at a lower cost than competing devices. It could be integrated into health tech devices as a sensor for heart rate, breathing rate, and even blood pressure. And it would not be affected by skin tone the way some photoplethysmography (PPG) sensors can be. The carbon paper sensors could even be incorporated in smart glasses and VR goggles to perform eye tracking.

The development process is well advanced at this point. Somalytics intends to have a shipping sensor product by the end of 2022 so we might not have to way too long before we’ll see it incorporated in products for end users.