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Shiny and (Electro)chrome: New Twist on Old Tech Could Bring Living Color at Low Power

Schematic: light enters from above and encounters a nanometer-scale grating made of aluminum coated with a special "electrochromic" material.
In this schematic, light enters from above and encounters a nanometer-scale grating made of aluminum coated with a special “electrochromic” material. Light passes through the nanograting as surface plasmons, oscillations that travel at the interface of a metal and a dielectric (insulating) material. The spacing of the slits serves to filter out all but one color of light, and an additional layer of silicon nitride further spectrally purifies the escaping light.
Credit: T. Xu and A. Agrawal/NIST

By marrying state-of-the-art nanometer-scale gratings with a Space Age-era thin-film polymer, researchers working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a new technology for building power-sipping full-color video displays, switches and routers for optical signals, as well as smart windows and coatings.

Electrochromic polymers make up a special class of materials that can switch from clear to colored and back again when their electrical charge changes. Their wide adoption, however, has been hindered because this transformation depends on how quickly electrons can get into and out of the material, which can take several seconds depending on the thickness of the film. Why not just make the films thinner so they'll change color faster? Good idea, but unfortunately, reducing the film's thickness robs the colors of their contrast, giving you a semitransparent black tint when what you wanted was an impenetrable, opaque black.

If the choice between being slow or weakly colored weren't bad enough, an electrochromic display using an additive color scheme—in which red, green and blue are mixed to achieve full color—would need up to six transparent electrically conducting layers to work, adding substantially to the cost of manufacturing.

Using some clever engineering, the researchers overcame this impasse by layering a thin film of electrochromic polymer over an aluminum nanograting. In their setup, the light first encounters the nanograting which, depending on the spacing of the slits, filters out all but one color of light. The electrochromic coating serves to modulate that light by allowing all or some (or none) of it to pass. A display based on this scheme would have an array of nanogratings acting as single-color pixels whose colors would, by adding or subtracting them, produce all the colors of the rainbow, with the individual pixels having adjustable levels of brightness or contrast.

But how does combining a thin film of electrochromic polymer with a nanograting make up for the just-described deficiencies of using said thin film? According to co-lead author Amit Agrawal, it's all about the architecture.

"Because the electrochromic film that coats the sidewalls of the nanograting is so thin, it's very easy for electrons to make their way through and change its opacity," Agrawal says. "The slits are much narrower (about 60 nanometers) than the wavelengths of light they are transmitting (from about 400 to 700 nanometers). This forces the incoming light to cling to the interface between the metal and the electrochromic layer on its way down the slits. And because the grating is so much deeper (about 250 nanometers) than it is wide, and the walls of the slits are coated with electrochromic polymer all the way down, it can reduce the light's intensity to the same degree as if the light were passing through a much thicker layer of electrochromic film, enabling a great amount of control."

NIST Fellow Henri Lezec, an author of the paper, says the setup they have now uses a liquid electrolyte, a chemical that facilitates the proper flow of electrons, which is not ideal for manufacturability and reliability, but that it could easily be replaced with a more physically stable and compact solid-state electrolyte.

Alec Talin, a co-author based at Sandia National Laboratories, says that the next step in extending this principle would be toward reflective, sunlight-readable displays that do not require an energy-consuming backlight.

This work was performed at NIST's Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST), which supports the U.S. nanotechnology enterprise from discovery to production by providing industry, academia, NIST and other government agencies with access to world-class nanoscale measurement and fabrication methods and technology.

The researchers described their work in a paper published in Nature Communications.

T. Xu, E. Walter, A. Agrawal, C. Bohn, J. Velmurugan, W. Zhu, H. Lezec and A. Talin. High-contrast and fast electrochromic switching enabled by plasmonics. Nature Communications. Published Jan. 27, 2016. DOI:

Released February 2, 2016, Updated January 17, 2023