Antireflection (AR) coatings on plastics have a multitude of practical applications, including glare reduction on eyeglasses, computer monitors and the display on your smart-phone when outdoors. Now, researchers at Penn State have developed an AR coating that improves on existing coatings to the extent that it can make transparent plastics, such as Plexiglas, virtually invisible.
“This discovery came about as we were trying to make higher-efficiency solar panels,” said Chris Giebink, associate professor of electrical engineering, Penn State. “Our approach involved concentrating light onto small, high-efficiency solar cells using plastic lenses, and we needed to minimize their reflection loss.”
They needed an antireflection coating that worked well over the entire solar spectrum and at multiple angles as the sun crossed the sky. They also needed a coating that could stand up to weather over long periods of time outdoors.
“We would have liked to find an off-the-shelf solution, but there wasn’t one that met our performance requirements,” he said. “So, we started looking for our own solution.”
That was a tall order. Although it is comparatively easy to make a coating that will eliminate reflection at a particular wavelength or in a particular direction, one that could fit all their criteria did not exist. For instance, eyeglass AR coatings are targeted to the narrow visible portion of the spectrum. But the solar spectrum is about five times as broad as the visible spectrum, so such a coating would not perform well for a concentrating solar cell system.
Reflections occur when light travels from one medium, such as air, into a second medium, in this case plastic. If the difference in their refractive index, which specifies how fast light travels in a particular material, is large — air has a refractive index of 1 and plastic 1.5 — then there will be a lot of reflection. The lowest index for a natural coating material such as magnesium fluoride or Teflon is about 1.3. The refractive index can be graded — slowly varied — between 1.3 and 1.5 by blending different materials, but the gap between 1.3 and 1 remains.
In a paper recently posted online ahead of print in the journal Nano Letters, Giebink and coauthors describe a new process to bridge the gap between Teflon and air. They used a sacrificial molecule to create nanoscale pores in evaporated Teflon, thereby creating a graded index Teflon-air film that fools light into seeing a smooth transition from 1 to 1.5, eliminating essentially all reflections.
“The interesting thing about Teflon, which is a polymer, is when you heat it up in a crucible, the large polymer chains cleave into smaller fragments that are small enough to volatize and send up a vapor flux. When these land on a substrate they can repolymerize and form Teflon,” Giebink said.