Nanoscale structures offer particular advantages in devices that interact with light. For example, a thin-film solar cell carpeted with nano pillars is more efficient because the pillars absorb more light and convert more of it into electricity. Other nanoscale textures offer similar advantages in optical devices like display backlights.
The problem is scaling up to large areas, says Yi Cui, a Stanford professor of materials science and engineering who led the new work. "Many methods are really complex and don't solve the problem," says Cui. Lithography can be used to carve out nanoscale features with precise dimensions, but it's expensive and difficult. Simpler techniques, such as spin-coating a surface with nanoparticles or using acids to etch it with tiny holes, don't allow for much precision.
Cui's group adapted a process that's used commercially to manufacture flexible packaging. A rod wound with wires is used to evenly deposit a liquid coating containing silica nanospheres. The treated surface ends up with specific nanoscale structural properties.