One of the most used material types in the world are polymers. There are many different kinds of polymers. All of which possess specific applications and properties. One of these classes of polymers is optical polymers. There are various polymer materials that can be used as optical materials for a variety of applications. These polymer materials are known as polymer optics or plastic optics.
Common polymer materials for optical applications include:
- Polycarbonate (PC)
- Liquid silicone (resins)
Polymer optics have been utilized in various advanced optical components across a number of industries, including defense, aerospace, illumination, and machine vision. In this blog we will take a closer look at polymer optics, their benefits, and applications.
Properties of polymer optics
Polymer optics obtain high light transmittance throughout the visible spectral region, and to a limited extent, in the near infrared region.
Most polymer optics have a refractive index of somewhere between 1.4 and 1.5.
One downside of polymer optics is a lower optical quality in comparison to glass materials. Optical glass materials can achieve higher optical quality. This is also one of the main reasons glass materials are still used as optical elements, despite the higher costs.
Another downside, in some situations, is the high-temperature sensitivity of plastic optics. In some cases this might be a problem. However, our material can be used at an operating temperature of 90°.
Plastic optics are softer than glass optics, meaning they are prone to scratches. As such, an optical coating may be required.
However, polymer optics also have advantages over glass optics. Polymers have a low density, allowing for fabrication of lightweight components. Which is a significant advantage over glass optics.
One of the biggest advantages of this kind of optics are the low costs.
Optical properties of polymer optics are dependent upon the specific polymer (or copolymer) material that is being used. The formulation (fillers, plasticizers, colorant and other additives) as well as the crystallinity of the materials will also impact the optical properties.
Check our Addoptics datasheet for our most up-to-date capabilities and material properties.
Uses of polymer optics
In terms of the usage of these optics, there are many different applications where they can be used. Polymer optics are suited for common optical components such as lens arrays, Fresnel lenses, micro optics, spherical and aspherical optics, as well as freeform optics. These optical components would be much more difficult to make with glass material.
Polymer optics are widely used in LED illumination applications. They can also be used in laser scanners, telecommunications products and imaging systems.
Common applications for polymer optics include:
- Mobile devices such as drones and smartphones. You can most likely find small, aspheric lenses in these devices for which plastic optics are ideal.
- Optical storage devices
- Light emitting diodes (LEDs).
It is not just optical lenses and basic optical components that benefit from the specific properties that polymer optics possess in comparison to glass. Polymer optics are also used for various high-tech applications, like thermal sensors. Optical polymer lenses can also be used effectively in CMOS image sensors as they are easier to make, cheaper and more flexible than glass materials.
By applying a coating to a polymer optic, a number of additional options become available. This is due to the mechanical properties as well as the optical performance being enhanced by the coating. Coated polymer optics can be used for imaging applications, for example:
- Highly Reflective (HR) coatings: used for reflecting lasers and other light sources.
- Anti-reflective (AR) coatings: reduces reflection and improves efficiency of the components.
- Reflective coating: used to create optical mirrors. Ex:. by applying aluminum (Al) coating in combination with silicon dioxide (SIO2) a high performance mirror can be manufactured.
- Scratch-proof AR coatings: reduces reflection and is scratch-proof for increased durability.
Benefits of polymer lenses
Benefits that polymer optics have over glass solutions include:
- Lower weight
- Ability to integrate mechanical and optical features
- High impact resistance
- Lower unit price
- Shorter lead-time: no time consuming grinding and polishing required
- More flexible than glass: allowing for aspheric, freeform and other complex lens designs
When you compare design requirements, manufacturing lead times, tolerances and production cost between polymer optics and their glass equivalent, it becomes clear that polymer optics are the superior choice.
In order to take full advantage of the benefits of polymer lenses, Addoptics has developed a smart manufacturing process of polymer optics. With our unique technology you can have your custom polymer lenses manufactured in days instead of weeks. With Addoptics you can use one manufacturing method for all stages of optics manufacturing. Allowing you to achieve a 10x improvement in the speed of development of optic enabled devices.