nanoparticles and is seeking partners who can demonstrate the process at industrial scale for everything from solar cells to light-emitting diodes.
Titanium-dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles show great promise as fillers to tune the refractive index of anti-reflective coatings on signs and optical encapsulants for LEDs, solar cells and other optical devices. Optical encapsulants are coverings or coatings, usually made of silicone, that protect a device.
Industry largely has shunned TiO2 nanoparticles because they’ve been difficult and expensive to make, and current methods produce particles that are too large.
Sandia became interested in TiO2 for optical encapsulants because of its work on LED materials for solid-state lighting.
Current production methods for TiO2 often require high-temperature processing or costly surfactants – molecules that bind to something to make it soluble in another material, like dish soap does with fat.
Those methods produce less-than-ideal nanoparticles that are very expensive, can vary widely in size and show significant particle clumping called agglomeration.
Sandia’s technique, on the other hand, uses readily available, low-cost materials and results in nanoparticles that are small, roughly uniform in size and don’t clump.
“We wanted something that was low cost and scalable, and that made particles that were very small,” said researcher Todd Monson, who along with principal investigator Dale Huber patented the process in mid-2011 as “High-yield synthesis of brookite TiO2 nanoparticles.”
Their method produces nanoparticles roughly 5 nanometers in diameter, approximately 100 times smaller than the wavelength of visible light, so there’s little light scattering, Monson said.
“That’s the advantage of nanoparticles – not just nanoparticles, but small nanoparticles,” he said.
Scattering decreases the amount of light transmission. Less scattering also can help extract more light, in the case of an LED, or capture more light, in the case of a solar cell.
TiO2 can increase the refractive index of materials, such as silicone in lenses or optical encapsulants. Refractive index is the ability of material to bend light. Eyeglass lenses, for example, have a high refractive index.
Practical nanoparticles must be able to handle different surfactants so they’re soluble in a wide range of solvents. Different applications require different solvents for processing.
“If someone wants to use TiO2 nanoparticles in a range of different polymers and applications, it’s convenient to have your particles be suspension-stable in a wide range of solvents as well,” Monson said.
The next step is to demonstrate synthesis at an industrial scale, which will require a commercial partner. Monson, who presented the work at Sandia’s fall Science and Technology Showcase, said Sandia has received inquiries from companies interested in commercializing the technology.