Optical Coatings: A Lucrative Industry Full of Opportunities
Optical coatings find use across a wide array of applications, including medical instruments, sensors, optical communications, lighting, automotive, and aerospace components.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution between the late 1700s and early 1800s, manufacturing processes marked a significant shift from localized to mass manufacturing. This led to the growth of numerous technology-driven sectors on a large scale, especially in automotive, aerospace, and electronics, among many others.
With the growth of these industries, demand for related components also witnessed increases and led to further industry developments. Coatings is one such industry. The primary, initial application of coatings was to provide surface protection. As the industry advanced at a rapid pace, the use of coatings has expanded to a large extent. Specialized coatings are now developed to suit specific requirements from end-use industries. For instance, coatings developed for aerospace industry demands specify characteristics such as flexibility to rapid temperature change, resistance to hydraulic fluids, and high corrosion resistance, to name a few.
Optics and optical components are often coated with materials to modify the reflected light or the light emitted from the source. These optical coating can be commonly found in bulbs, lenses, and mirrors. The main application of an optical coating is to provide a highly reflective surface and to block certain ranges of wavelengths while allowing the remaining wavelengths to pass unobstructed. Calcium fluoride, magnesium fluoride, silver, and aluminum are some of the materials used for coating optical components.
Optical coatings find use across wide array of applications, including medical instruments, sensors, optical communications, lighting, biotechnology, automotive, lithography, and space and astronomical components. The increasing manufacture of technologically enhanced and complex components is one of the key driving factors for the optical coatings industry.
The automotive industry is dynamic when it comes to technology developments. In the span of 100 years, this industry has come a long way—from the inception of assembly-line production to the development of fully autonomous cars. Technological developments related to the manufacture of autonomous cars are expected to open new avenues for the optical coatings industry.
Optical sensors are one of the key technologies in autonomous and semi-autonomous cars. Based on LEDs and infrared lasers, vehicles feature several optical components such as radars, lasers, and cameras. Several new technologies incorporating optical components are being introduced in next-generation cars, including camera systems with infrared (IR)-based auxiliary lighting, LIDAR lasers, and environment detection. In addition, driver-assistance technologies such as collision avoidance, lane assistance, night vision, and traffic sign recognition depend on optical sensors for their operation.
As a result of these new technologies, demand for specialized optical films and coatings has increased significantly in recent years. Optical coatings provide superior spectral performance and environmental stability, thereby increasing the performance of the optical component.
Different types of optical coatings are applied to the sensors, depending on the application. For example, in night vision assistance systems, optical coatings enable maximum near-IR throughput while significantly lowering the visible light. Other types of optical coatings, such as bandpass filters and anti-reflective coatings, cover applications like distance measurement and visibility enhancement, among others.
Overall, the automotive industry is set to provide significant opportunities for the optical coatings industry in the foreseeable future. Demand for optical coatings for automotive applications is projected to grow with a significant CAGR of 11.5% through 2025.
Renewable energy generation through solar power and optical communication transmission are key growth industries for optical coatings. With the alarming depletion of non-renewable coal-based sources, the need for renewable energy sources has increased significantly.
The adoption of alternative renewable energy sources has widely increased at both the government and community level. According to the Africa-EU Renewable Energy Cooperation Programme (RECP), a total of 99.1 GW of grid-connected solar power was installed in 2017, which is more than any other power generation technology. The outlook for solar energy looks promising, with active adoption of this renewable source increasing across several parts of the globe.
Optical coatings play a significant role in this sector. The coatings are applied to the top layers of solar cells and other photovoltaic components to enhance performance by increasing the light-collecting yield and life span while reducing maintenance costs. Solar panels mainly use anti-reflective coatings, which are similar to the optical coatings applied to camera lenses. The coating consist of a thin layer of dielectric material, which filters specific light rays.
The development of nanoscale coatings to increase solar power output is a trending research topic. With the increasing installation of photovoltaic panels, the demand for optical coatings in this application is set to witness remarkable growth in the coming years, with a volume CAGR of 12.8% to 2025.
Aerospace and Defense
Thin film technology has played a significant role in photovoltaic power generation for space applications as well. Optical coatings, particularly anti-reflective coatings, find use in various equipment for monitoring and exploratory missions. Apart from space applications, optics are widely used for military operations. Target designators, guidance systems, vision systems, and surveillance packages are some of the key application segments of optical coatings for military applications.
As these components operate in extreme environmental conditions, coatings applied for these applications are specifically designed to suit the external conditions. The defense sector is currently witnessing steady growth, with increasing spending by several countries, especially China.
The global optical coatings industry is highly dependent on technological innovations from end-use industries. As a result, optical coatings manufacturers aim to create product differentiation through technological innovations and R&D investments. Mergers and acquisitions also represent a prominent strategy adopted by market players in order to expand their product offerings and capabilities.
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