Hidden defects in polymer-based laser welds visualized by Terahertz microprobes

by M. Nagel, S. Sawallich, C. Matheisen and M. Brosda

Fig. 1

Fig. 1: Laser transmission welded polypropylene polymer parts with different pigments concentrations and visually invisible internal welds [Polymer Parts Treffert GmbH & Co. KG]

In the last decade, laser transmission welding of polymers has become the method of choice for joining complex three-dimensional parts with highest accuracy. Laser welding of polymers is broadly used for example for the fabrication of components from automotive or medical sectors. The welding process is based on a focused laser beam which is used to melt the polymer at the interface between the two parts to be joined. Usually one part is chosen to be transparent and the other is chosen to be absorbing to assist the welding process. Parts with identical optical properties (such as transparent/transparent or white/white) may also be joined – however the control of the melting process is much more demanding in this case (Fig.1). Process monitoring and non-destructive testing techniques are playing a crucial role in polymer laser welding especially in industrial application cases, such as the sealing of enclosures or sensors with internal electronics, where the laser welding is often the last step in the production chain of the final product. At this point, however, where the product value chain is almost complete any process failure is especially costly.
Particularly in safety-critical components there is an ongoing trend to hundred percent complete inspections which can only be achieved through non-destructive testing methods. So far, a final inspection of the weld is often associated with the costly destruction of the product since current non-destructive testing methods such as optical microscopy (based on light from the visible or infrared region) are restrained by the large absorption or scattering found in many plastics. Hence, for certain visually non-transparent materials such as polypropylene, polyamide and fiber reinforced polymers the currently available non-destructive testing methods are unable to uncover defects and inhomogeneity in laser welds. Accordingly, process and quality control are impaired due to insufficient feedback information.

Terahertz based non-destructive testing of polymers

Radiation from the Terahertz (THz) frequency range is very promising for the non-destructive testing of polymer components because of its high transmissivity through most polymers – essentially regardless of color or composition. Consequently, THz imaging has already been tested for polymer sorting applications [1] and the analysis of large-scale polymer weld joints [2] using classic diffraction-limited far-field transmission schemes. Typical air void defects in polymer laser welds have diameters in the range of ca. 50-100 µm. Unfortunately, due to the large wavelength of THz rays the spatial resolution which can be achieved through far-field approaches is insufficient to recognize such microscopic defects or inhomogeneities found at laser-generated welds.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2: The process of scattering light generation at a small air void caused by a pulsed plane wave. (a) Plane wave propagating towards the void, (b) plane wave/void interaction and (c) propagation of the incident and the scattered waves.

THz light scattering from defects

Using microprobes as a key component for THz light detection close to the sample surface instead of far-field detection enables the monitoring of micron-scale buried air voids and inhomogeneity in laser welds, as demonstrated now in a study undertaken by Protemics GmbH [3] and the Fraunhofer ILT [4], both located in Aachen, Germany. The reason for the much better recognition performance of the microprobe-based detection in contrast to earlier approaches is given by the ability to measure very efficiently the light scattering generated by the local inhomogeneities in the welds. The process of scattered light generation at a buried air void in a polymer bulk material is sketched in Fig. 2 (a)-(c). The structure under test is shown in cross-sections at different times of plane wave excitation. A THz plane wave pulse is incident from the bottom side and propagating towards the air void (Fig. 2 (a)). The scattering interaction between the incident plane wave and the air void is generating a second spherical wave propagating away from the defect into every room direction. Due to the decreased phase retardation within the air void in comparison to the bulk material the undeflected forward propagating part of the scattered wave is running in front of the plane wave. Both waves are subject to interference effects which is also visible in the more detailed field simulation shown in Fig. 3. As in Fig. 2 the incident plane is propagating into the upper direction, too. The shown THz field amplitude refers to the field vector component in transversal direction.
The reason, why the surface-near detection is superior to standard far-field detection becomes very apparent from these simulation results. The main signal contribution caused by the presence of the void is the scattering light, however, because of the radial divergence of the scattered wave this information is almost completely lost at larger distances from the sample where the far-field is detected. Likewise, interference effects are much more pronounced at closer distances. As described by theory for Mie scattering [5] the extinction efficiency is maximum for particle sizes close to the wavelength of the incident light, which is giving a further reason why the THz light is especially attractive for this application.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3: Snap-shot of a time-domain field simulation showing the scattering light generation from an incident THz pulse plane wave at an air void.

The samples investigated in this work have been processed at the Fraunhofer – Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, Germany. They are based on a polypropylene opaque to visible light with a material thickness of 1000 µm per joining partner. A buried laser weld with a lateral width of ca. 380 µm has been generated between both parts.

Using microprobes to pick up the scattering light

The measurement system used for the tests in this work has been described in detail in an earlier publication [6]. A THz plane wave pulse is transmitted through the sample under test (SUT). In order to measure the transmitted field in the time-domain the tip of the microprobe is scanned across a virtual plane in a distance of a few tens of micrometers above the SUT. Fig. 4 (a) is showing the recorded THz field image at the time when the peak amplitude of the plane wave has just reached the microprobe. The image exhibits a large reddish colored background area (corresponding to the peak of the THz plane wave) including an L-shaped lighter area, which refers to the laser-welded area. Within this area there are 6 prominent spots generated by air voids showing strongly decreased THz field amplitudes reaching even negative values. The measured differences between the spots are attributed to size differences of the air voids. Fig. 4 (b) is showing a further image taken at a time-delay of 230 fs later than Fig. 4 (a). Here, the propagation of the spherical waves scattered from the air voids is clearly visible.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4: Transmitted THz plane wave and scattering light measured in close distance to a polymer laser weld using THz microprobes. (a) Measurement on plane-wave peak and (b) 230 fs later. (c) Sample configuration.


The Terahertz microprobing technique is a highly attractive novel approach for the inspection of laser welds in polymers. The new method is paving the way for the non-destructive inspection of critical types of polymers such as polypropylene or fiber reinforced polymers which can only be analyzed by destructive methods, so far.


[1] A. Maul, M. Nagel, “Polymer identification with terahertz technology,” OCM 2013-Optical Characterization of Materials-conference proceedings, 265 (2013).
[2] S. Wietzke, C. Jördens, N. Krumbholz, et al. „Terahertz imaging: a new non-destructive technique for the quality control of plastic weld joints,” Journal Of The European Optical Society – Rapid Publications, 2 (2007).
[3] www.protemics.com
[4] www.ilt.fraunhofer.de
[5] H. C. van de Hulst, Light Scattering by Small Particles (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1957).
[6] M. Nagel, A. Safiei, S. Sawallich, C. Matheisen, T. M. Pletzer, A. A. Mewe, N. J. C. M. van der Borg, I. Cesar, H. Kurz „THz microprobe system for contact-free high-resolution sheet resistance imaging,” 28th European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition, pp. 856-860 (2013).

EMERGING TRANSPARENT CONDUCTORS – Advanced measurement tools needed

High-resolution sheet resistance image

Fig. 1: High-resolution sheet resistance image acquired at a metal mesh covered glass wafer fabricated through Rolith, Inc..

Following recent economic predictions the market for transparent conductor technologies excluding the yet standard material indium tin oxide (ITO) will see a significant increase from $206 million in 2013 to $4 billion by 2020 [1]. The applications requiring transparent conductors are manifold ranging from touch sensors, displays, lighting, thin-film solar cells to smart windows and others. Since ITO has deficits in terms of cost, mechanical flexibility and sheet resistance many companies like Atmel, Fujifilm, Cambrios, Rolith, Unipixel as well as research institutes are working on (and have already brought to market) alternative solutions such as graphene layers, silver nanowire dispersions or metal mesh nanostructures. Especially the latter approach appears to be very promising by offering superior conductivity, transparency and flexibility.However, the efficient development of non-ITO technologies also relies on the availability of powerful analysis tools. High-resolution measurements of sheet resistance distributions on large-scale areas, for example, have been a major problem so far and emerging transparent conductor technologies have even raised the analytic requirements. Metal mesh structures – typically consisting of sub-µm-wide wires – require time-consuming and destructive application of sufficiently large contact pad structures to enable contact based measurements. Existing contactless methods on the other hand (e.g. Eddy current based systems) are limited to only mm-scale spatial resolution – too low to visualize any local defects or inhomogeneity.

A new measurement tool recently developed by AMO GmbH, Germany, employing THz radiation in combination with the highly-resolving contactless microprobes (TeraSpike) [2] represents an important step towards the elimination of this lack. Offering quantitative sheet resistance measurements with up to 10 µm resolution the system has been applied recently to structured graphene layers from the Korean manufacturer Samsung Techwin [3]. Now the system has been used to demonstrate the prime performance of the metal mesh technology available from the Californian start-up company Rolith. Metal structures were fabricated in the form of submicron-width nanowires completely invisible to the human eye, lithographically placed in a regular 2-dimentional grid pattern with a period of tens of microns and thickness of a few hundreds of nanometers [4].

The highly detailed sheet resistance image (Fig. 1) acquired with the new THz microprobe scanner system from AMO using a scanning speed of 5 ms/Pixel reveals the low resistivity (<14 Ohm/☐) of the metal mesh fabricated by Rolith. Together with a transparency of >94% and very low haze (~2%) the manufacturer now considers his “technology above all major competition for ITO-alternative technologies” [4].

[1] http://touchdisplayresearch.com/?page_id=358

[2] https://www.amo.de/thz_tip.0.html?&L=1&L=2

[3] http://amoprotemics.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/terahertz-microprobes-efficiently-fostering-the-development-of-graphene-based-touch-screen-displays/

[4] http://www.rolith.com/press-releases/rolith-inc-demonstrates-superior-performance-of-ito-alternative-transparent-metal-grid-electrodes-fabricated-using-proprietary-nanolithography-technology

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