Applied Optoelectronics and Photonics Lab takes top Tech Tournament honors

Associate Professor Chris Giebink presents his technology "nanoporous antireflective coatings" at the 2019 Invent Penn State Tech Tournament Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To most people, improving antireflection coatings (ARCs) usually doesn’t hit the “to-do list.” Good thing the world has folks like Chris Giebink, associate professor of electrical engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering.

His work, with the assistance of current and former post-doctoral researchers, J.P. Murphy, Baomin Wang and graduate student Christian Ruud, resulted in the discovery and development of an improved ARC for transparent plastics. It might not seem like much, but consider that, by making greenhouse glazing clearer, growers could boost plant and food production by 10 percent. Now, we’re onto something big. Real big. Think global.

The judges at the recent Invent Penn State Venture & IP Conference clearly saw the opportunity.

They awarded Giebink and his Applied Optoelectronics & Photonics Lab at Penn State first place and $75,000 in the Conference’s Tech Tournament competition for its “nanoporous antireflection coatings.”

ARCs are needed for plexiglass optical components and display devices that require maximum light transmission, such as solar panels, camera lenses, medical equipment, eyeglass lenses and flat panel displays, among other applications.

The process is protected by two pending patents used to make the coating. According to Giebink, the new coating significantly outperforms existing AR solutions for plastic. The nanoporous ARC renders materials like plexiglass virtually invisible — while also exhibiting good adhesion, chemical and environmental durability.

“The commercial landscape for plastic optics is growing because it is lighter and lower cost than glass,” said Giebink. “High-performance coatings continue to be a challenge for plastic because of the limited processing temperature and thermal expansion mismatch associated with traditional inorganic AR coatings.”

Giebink’s team changed all of that.

“The AR coating technology we developed is based on a new process for making nanoporous polymer-thin films. The process is implemented with commercially available materials, such as Teflon, using standard equipment on an existing optical coating line with little retooling,” he said. “The nanoporous antireflection we developed in the lab at Penn State has unrivaled antireflection properties combined with the durability of Teflon.”

Giebink and his team discovered the new nanoporous technology almost by mistake. They had already been hard at work researching high-efficiency plastic optics for solar panels on behalf of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The ARPA-E, birthed out of the U.S. Department of Energy in 2007, advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies — new ways to generate, store and use energy that are too early for private-sector investment.

“We already knew Teflon had useful AR characteristics for plastic lenses and optics, but in our experimentation, we discovered we could control Teflon’s porosity at a nanoscale and boost the AR performance even further,” said Giebink. “That is good for solar applications, but it also means the potential for broader commercial and consumer applications.”

Industries are taking notice.

With the help of Penn State’s Office of Technology Management (OTM) and the ARPA-E, Giebink and his team are already in discussions with various technology, environmental, and aerospace companies to determine how to advance the ARC breakthrough. In addition to its initial, approximately $3 million commitment to the Applied Optoelectronics & Photonics Lab for solar energy research, ARPA-E has now targeted more of its research dollars at the ARC initiative — adding another $200,000 to the effort.

“The Office of Technology Management at Penn State has helped us immensely,” said Giebink. “The OTM has been the resource we’ve relied on to help shepherd our technology through the patent process, provide funding guidance and now, as we get closer to commercialization, they are working with us to determine how to best license the technology going forward.”

The Tech Tournament recognition comes on the heels of the lab’s work being awarded a $75,000 Engineering for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (ENGINE) grant from the Penn State College of Engineering (February 2019). ENGINE grants provide financial support to transition early stage research results through a proof-of-concept phase, with the ultimate objective of forming a start-up company or licensing the technology to an established business.

“The work Professor Giebink and his team are doing is truly disruptive,” said Tim Hurley, commercialization strategist in the Office of Technology Management. “While the improvement might seem incremental, it is monumental in its potential impact relative to energy usage, conservation and performance. The work he and the students are doing is a visible example of Penn State’s commitment to supporting research that has an impact on humankind.”

The Venture & IP Conference Tech Tournament featured 12 early-stage entrepreneurs whose ideas were borne out of Penn State research and who were seeking additional capital to help their startups take one step closer to commercialization. They were staking their claim for part of the $160,000 in prize money awarded at the dynamic, timed-pitch competition.

Last Updated November 22, 2019