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Mirrors: Coating Choice Makes a Difference

A mirror is an important element in many optical systems. Its basic function is to redirect light, often with the purpose of making an optical system more compact. This article discusses the kinds of thin-film coatings that can be used for mirrors. The choice of coating depends on the application, including the spectral range of interest, the optical wavefront quality desired and the cost limitations.

The basic difference between the household mirror and the optical mirror is that one is coated on the back surface and the other is coated on the front. For optical applications, a front-surface mirror must be used. This means that the reflective surface is subject to environmental degradation, even though it is usually in an enclosed environment and not exposed to the harsh conditions of the household mirror. An important part of mirror technology is providing a durable front-surface mirror that is stable and can be cleaned.

A mirror’s substrate surface should be flat and smooth. The flatness is usually specified in terms of how many wavelengths of light the surface deviates from being a perfect plane. For many applications, the glass can be flat to a few wavelengths of visible light. For the most stringent applications, the surface must be flat to a quarter of a wavelength or less. The surface quality of a mirror, or its smoothness, is measured in terms of scratches and digs that are still present after polishing. A scratch/dig specification of 80/50 is fairly routine, while a specification of 20/10 is much better, but more expensive.

For some applications, a mirror’s ability to conduct heat is important. In these cases, metal substrates are often used because metal is much more conductive than glass. Optical-quality metal surfaces can be fabricated by polishing or single-point diamond turning. The most common metals used are copper and aluminum. Although beryllium is highly toxic, it is used when especially light weight, stiff mirrors are required. In the case of metal substrates, the coating improves the reflectance and makes the surface more durable and resistant to scratches.

Metal mirror coatings

The simplest and most common mirror coating is a thin layer of metal. A 100-nm layer of aluminum or silver makes an excellent reflector for the visible spectrum. Aluminum reflects about 90 percent of the light across the visible spectrum, while silver reflects about 95 percent. The reflectance of a metal mirror can be calculated from the index of refraction n and the extinction coefficient k of the metal. The reflectance of a metal surface in air is given by:


Copper and gold are useful only in the red and IR spectral regions. For situations involving higher durability, less shiny metals are adequate. For example, rhodium is used for dental mirrors and chromium is used for rearview mirrors in cars.

Aluminum is fairly stable as a mirror, but silver tarnishes quickly unless kept in a dry, contamination-free environment. For example, a silver mirror that can last for months in Albuquerque, N.M., may degrade within a day in Orlando, Fla. If high reflectance is needed only beyond 0.6 or 0.7 μm, gold is a good choice because it is environmentally stable. However, even an unprotected aluminum or gold mirror cannot withstand cleaning with anything but the most gentle cotton ball or camel hair brush

A solution to degradation is overcoating the mirror with a dielectric material that is harder than the metal surface. A common overcoat material for visible mirrors is silicon monoxide (SiO). A mirror with a simple dielectric overcoat is called a protected metal mirror. Environmentally stable silver mirrors can be made by including various overcoat layers.

A broadband all-dielectric mirror can be made by combining two or more λ/4 stack reflectors with central wavelengths close enough together that the edges of the reflectance bands overlap. Such a mirror is durable and nonconductive and can have more than 99 percent reflectance over the entire visible spectrum. A mirror with such performance might involve as many as 100 layers. The buyer is left with the trade-off between the higher cost of a 100-layer mirror with 99+ percent reflectance and a much less expensive three- or four-layer enhanced aluminum mirror with about 97 percent reflectance.

A final word about optical figure: In cases where optical figure or flatness is important, choose a mirror with fewer layers. The figure of a surface that has been polished to 1/10 of a wavelength will not be adversely affected by a 1000-Å-thick aluminum layer that has thickness variations of several percent. However, a 100-layer coating with thickness variations of 2 percent across the surface (a typical coating uniformity tolerance) would distort the wavefront of the reflected beam by several wavelengths. Amateur astronomers who polish their own telescope mirrors — often to a surface accuracy of λ/10 — must be careful that the figure is not ruined by an aluminum coating with a protective layer that has poor uniformity.

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