Top DLC Coatings for Tribology Applications: A Guide for Thin Film Coating Engineers


What is Tribology? It is the study of friction, wear and lubrication, and the design of bearings. It is the science of interacting surfaces in relative motion. Tribological coatings are a critical aspect of material interactions, where the convergence of surfaces and the interaction of mechanical forces are key. At its core, Tribology is dedicated to mitigating friction, wear, and material degradation that arise from contact, resulting in a significant improvement of mechanical system performance, longevity, and efficiency. This endeavor has been stimulated by the emergence of Diamond-Like Carbon (DLC) coatings, which have generated a major shift in the field.

Renowned for their exceptional hardness, wear resistance, low friction coefficient, and biocompatibility, DLC coatings establish a pivotal foundation with outstanding functional attributes. They serve as the focal point for thin film coating engineers who are dedicated to refining deposition processes for various tribological applications.

In this comprehensive article, we will delve into the top DLC coatings renowned for their outstanding tribological performance. By understanding the unique advantages and considerations for each DLC variant, engineers can successfully craft tailored processes to unlock the full potential of these coatings in various tribological industries.

Tribology info graphic

Hydrogenated Amorphous Carbon DLC (a-C:H)

Hydrogenated Amorphous Carbon DLC coatings, also known as a-C:H, have secured their place as one of the top DLC choices for tribological applications due to their unique combination of sp3 and sp2 carbon bonding, coupled with hydrogen incorporation. The presence of hydrogen reduces internal stress and enhances coating adhesion, ultimately improving tribological performance. To excel in this area, thin film coating engineers must skillfully manipulate deposition parameters, including hydrogen content and energy levels during Plasma-Enhanced Chemical Vapor Deposition (PECVD) or Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) processes. By optimizing hardness, friction coefficient, and wear resistance, a-C:H coatings find application in critical areas such as automotive components and cutting tools.

Tetrahedral Amorphous Carbon (ta-C)

Tetrahedral Amorphous Carbon coatings have ascended to the top of the Tribology hierarchy, owing to their exceptional hardness and wear resistance, primarily derived from a high concentration of sp3 carbon bonding. To unlock their full potential, thin film coating engineers must precisely control carbon ion energy and flux during deposition, utilizing methods such as Filtered Cathodic Vacuum Arc (FCVA) or Pulsed Laser Deposition (PLD). Additionally, substrate choice and biasing significantly influence film properties. In the realms of MEMS, optical devices, and aerospace applications, ta-C coatings are highly sought-after due to their unmatched wear resistance and low friction characteristics.

Hydrogen-Free DLC (a-C)

The allure of hydrogen-free DLC coatings lies in their predominant sp3 carbon bonding, offering exceptional hardness and wear resistance. By fine-tuning deposition processes to achieve low residual stress and strong substrate adhesion, thin film coating engineers can harness techniques like Magnetron Sputtering or Ion Beam Deposition to produce dense, hydrogen-free DLC films. This makes a-C coatings a preferred choice for mechanical components such as bearings and gears, where minimizing friction and wear is crucial.

Amorphous Hydrogenated Carbon Nitride (a-C:H:N)

By introducing nitrogen alongside hydrogen, thin film coating engineers can further enhance hardness and wear resistance in DLC coatings. Skillful manipulation of nitrogen content and deposition temperature during processes like Plasma-Enhanced Chemical Vapor Deposition (PECVD) or Ion Beam-Assisted Deposition (IBAD) allows engineers to optimize a-C:H:N coating properties. These coatings find wide-ranging applications in cutting tools and automotive components, where improved performance and durability are paramount.

Amorphous Hydrogenated Carbon Oxide (a-C:H:O)

The incorporation of oxygen in DLC coatings significantly improves adhesion to substrates and enhances tribological performance, particularly in moist or lubricated environments. By judiciously controlling the partial pressure of oxygen during PECVD or Reactive Sputtering, thin film coating engineers can fine-tune a-C:H:O coating properties. Bearings in marine environments and medical implants are notable applications benefiting from these coatings.

Fluorinated DLC (a-C:F)

Thin film coating engineers can capitalize on the exceptional chemical inertness and non-stick properties of fluorinated DLC coatings, achieved by introducing fluorine into the DLC structure. Techniques such as Plasma Polymerization allow engineers to create these coatings. The applications span high-temperature environments and chemical exposures, making a-C:F coatings highly coveted in these scenarios.

Silicon-Incorporated DLC (Si-DLC)

Introducing silicon into DLC coatings augments adhesion, improves tribological performance, and enhances resistance to abrasive wear. By experimenting with silicon content during PECVD or Magnetron Sputtering, thin film coating engineers can achieve the desired properties for various applications. The automotive, aerospace, and biomedical industries widely employ Si-DLC coatings.


As thin film coating engineers strive to develop optimized processes for tribological applications, the top DLC coatings discussed in this article offer a wealth of opportunities. Hydrogenated Amorphous Carbon DLC (a-C:H), Tetrahedral Amorphous Carbon (ta-C), Hydrogen-Free DLC (a-C), Amorphous Hydrogenated Carbon Nitride (a-C:H:N), Amorphous Hydrogenated Carbon Oxide (a-C:H:O), Fluorinated DLC (a-C:F), and Silicon-Incorporated DLC (Si-DLC) represent the pinnacle of DLC advancements for tribological excellence. Through meticulous control of deposition parameters and innovative techniques, engineers can unleash the full potential of these coatings in diverse tribological industries, driving innovation and progress in the field of thin film coatings.