« Back to Category

Understanding Thin Film Process Technologies

Learn about the different coating process technologies and where each is best employed.

There are currently a number of different processes used for the manufacture of optical thin films, the most common of these being traditional thermal or electron beam evaporation, ion assisted deposition (IAD) and ion beam sputtering (IBS).  If properly utilized, each of these techniques has value, and possesses its own unique advantages and limitations.  Unfortunately, many coating manufacturers use only one of these methods, and therefore attempt to make it appear that their single approach is uniquely advantageous for all applications.  REO understands that this is not the case, and employs all of these coating technologies, using each where necessary to deliver the precise combination of performance, physical characteristics and price that our customers require. 

While we don’t believe that our customers should have to become expert in thin film coating methods, we do feel that informing the market will help people to make better decisions and cut through the hype.  To that end, this section provides a brief overview and comparison of various coating technologies.

Mechanical &
Scatter &
Precision * Cost
< 266 nm 266 nm -
5 µm
> 5 µm
Evaporative good good good poor good poor poor good
IAD fair good fair fair good fair fair fair
IBS poor good poor good good good good fair

* The ability to precisely control deposited layer characteristics and therefore reliably meet even difficult performance targets.


E-beam and Thermal Evaporation

View Thermal Evaporation Model or click on image below:

Traditional electron-beam and thermal evaporation are the most widely employed methods for producing thin films because of their simplicity and relatively low cost of implementation.  Here, a coating material is heated either resistively (for metals) or through electron beam bombardment (for dielectrics) within a high vacuum chamber until it vaporizes.  This vapor then streams away from the source and recondenses on all surfaces that are in a line of sight with the source.

This method of evaporation is a relatively low energy process, and, as a result, the dielectric films it produces are porous, of relatively low density, and exhibit a columnar structure. Typically, the substrate is heated to several hundred degrees Celsius during coating to mitigate this effect, but it is by no means eliminated.

The problem with these porous films is that they can subsequently absorb moisture, which changes the refractive index of the layer(s).  This, in turn, means that coating performance parameters (such as center wavelength) can shift in use with changes in ambient temperature and humidity.  Low density also limits mechanical durability to some extent, although these films can typically meet most of the MIL-SPEC durability and environmental requirements.  Furthermore, the requirement to heat the components during processing can limit substrate material choice, and also introduce stress in the substrate due to thermal cycling

Evaporative coating processes are difficult to automate entirely, and typically need monitoring by an operator.  However, the high deposition rates keep coating run times relatively short, and thus production costs low.  As a result, this method is particularly favored when cost is a significant consideration, and performance and durability specifications are relatively loose.  The other big advantage of evaporative methods is that they are suitable for use with an extremely wide range of coating materials, from fluorides used in the deep ultraviolet, to oxides for visible wavelengths, through semiconductor and sulfide materials often employed in the infrared. 

Primary advantages:

  • Low cost
  • Works with coating materials from the deep UV through the infrared

Primary disadvantages:

  • Heat cycling during processing can limit substrate choice and introduce internal stress
  • Lower environmental stability and mechanical durability


Ion Assisted Deposition (IAD)

View IAD Model or Click on image below:

IAD is a variant of the electron-beam evaporation process which adds a high energy ion beam that is directed at the part to be coated.  These ions act almost like an atomic sized hammer, producing a higher film density than can be achieved with purely by evaporation alone.  The ion beam can also be used to pre-clean or etch the surface of the substrate, which can improve film adhesion. 

The result of higher coating density is improved mechanical durability, greater environmental stability and lower scatter than films produced using just electron beam evaporation.  The amount of ion assist can be smoothly varied from zero up to its maximum level for each layer individually, which also gives the process tremendous flexibility.  In particular, it enables the intrinsic stress of a coating to be modified during deposition, in some cases changing the overall film stress from tensile to compressive.  This can help to maintain substrate surface figure, especially when depositing thick infrared coatings.  It also extends the wavelength range over which the process can be used.  For example, while IAD is not compatible with some of the commonly used materials in the infrared, it can be used solely on the outermost layer to yield an overall coating with superior durability. 

Primary advantages:

  • Enhanced density provides good compromise between cost, spectral stability and durability
  • Can be selectively employed from the UV through the IR
  • Doesn’t require heating the substrate which broadens material choices

Primary disadvantages:

  • Higher scatter and loss than IBS


Ion beam sputtering (IBS)

View IBS Model or click image below:

IBS coatings are produced in a vacuum chamber.  In IBS, a high energy ion beam is directed at a target, typically composed of a metal or oxide.  The ions transfer their momentum to the target material, causing atoms or molecules to sputter off.  These high energy atoms then deposit onto the parts to be coated.  Oxygen is typically present at low pressure in the coating chamber as a reactant to either create oxides when using metal targets, or to re-oxidize any free atoms dissociated by the sputtering process when using oxide targets. 

The high energy of the ion beam sputtering process results in extremely uniform, high density, completely amorphous films with excellent adhesion to the substrate.  This translates into high environmental stability and mechanical durability.  Furthermore, the surface roughness of the deposited layers is very low, even into the sub-angstrom level, which can yield visible and infrared with a combined scatter and absorption of less than 1 ppm.

While deposition rates are low compared with other coating techniques, control and reproducibility is high, making it possible to hit performance targets with greater precision than evaporative techniques.  This makes IBS particularly well suited for producing steep edge filters, very broad band mirrors, and multi-wavelength mirrors and AR coatings.  In addition, the process can also be highly automated, meaning that it does not require operator supervision. 

The biggest drawback of IBS is that it only works with a limited range of materials, typically metal oxides.  Most of these aren’t transmissive below 266 nm or above about 5 µm. 

Primary advantages:

  • Delivers the ultimate in stability and durability
  • Lowest possible absorption and scatter of any coating technology
  • Doesn’t require heating the substrate which broadens material choices
  • Enables accurate process control resulting in high precision coatings

Primary disadvantages:

  • Not applicable in the deep UV or far IR
  • Higher cost than evaporative due to longer cycle times

Contact REO to have us start thinking about you. 303.938.1960