On reading the words "smart glass" you would be forgiven if
the first thing they brought to mind was Google Glass or some
other niche technology from Silicon Valley that is likely to
fade into the fog of history.
But smart glass is much more than the latest craze, and even
more than just the latest innovation. In fact, the first
implementation of smart-glass technologies was made in 1982 by
Gentex, when it introduced the world’s first
automatically dimming rear-view mirrors for cars.
And while it has not made its way into my own car windows,
popular magazine New Scientist reported in 1989 that
General Motors had filed a European patent application (No304
198) for "smart windows which automatically control the
transmission of light and heat," made of glass which "darkens
and bleaches when an electric current is fed through it from
[a] light sensor and control circuit."
While it may be "old" technology, smart glass is
experiencing a resurgence in popularity because of the 21st
century demand for building materials to be more
multifunctional, to have "unique" properties and, in the case
of architecture, to help to build environmentally sustainable
spaces for living and working.
Smart glass benefits
A study published in 2017 by Piers MacNaughton and his
multidisciplinary team at Harvard University in the United
States found that "improved indoor environmental quality is
associated with better health outcomes," and that workers from
"green certified buildings" scored significantly "higher on
cognitive function tests - controlling for annual earnings, job
category and level of schooling - and had 30% fewer
sick-building symptoms than those in non-certified
Smart glass is "about 70% more energy-efficient during
summer and 45% more efficient in the winter, compared with
standard dual-pane glass," making it an integral part of
green-building architecture, according to a recent article by
RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.
In this article, associate professor Madhu Bhaskaran
explains how she and PhD student Mohammad Taha have developed a
vanadium oxide-based self-modifying material which will help
smart glass to become greener and more automated. Prof
Bhaskaran explains that their coating "doesn’t
require [the input of] energy [unlike existing technology] and
responds directly to changes in temperature."
The article used a smart-glass retrofit of New York
City’s Empire State Building in 2010 as an example
of how economic and environmental benefits were already being
drawn out of existing technology. This retrofit resulted in
"reported energy savings of $2.4 million and… carbon
emissions [reduced] by 4,000 metric tonnes [per year]."
More recently, in 2017 industry major SageGlass, whose
parent company is Saint Gobain, installed its smart glass at
the University of Colorado Boulder, in the US. In the same
year, View Inc announced that it will install 66,000 square
feet of dynamic glass at San Francisco International Airport,
while Kinestral Technologies unveiled the first installation of
its new Halio smart tinting glass at the San Francisco office
of Alexandria Real Estate Equities.
Looking to future glazing design trends, SageGlass thinks
that large-scale installations, expansion into additional
global markets, and the increasing use of smart glass in the
hospitality sector will create the majority of new business
Raw materials supplies
So how will these trends affect raw material supplies? Since
the innovation in smart glass is in the thin metal-oxide layer
within the glass, it might be logical to conclude that the
demand for some metals is likely to rise. And while some of the
technology being used in today’s products is
proprietary, we know that oxides of tungsten, molybdenum,
vanadium, indium and titanium can be electrically stimulated to
increase their light-absorption properties.
In the case of vanadium, RMIT’s announced
technological breakthrough caught the eye of Vanadium Corp, a
vanadium processing technology and exploration company, which
reintroduced the work to the Toronto Stock Exchange. "Smart
windows and energy storage are examples of the glaring need to
address the global short supply of vanadium, [which is] only
possible with more efficient and sustainable methods of
production," the company’s chief executive
officer, Adriaan Bakker, said.
European prices for vanadium pentoxide were $14.90-15.50 per
lb in-warehouse Rotterdam on Friday April 20, according to
Metal Bulletin’s assessment, down from
$15.50-16.00 per lb one week before.
While Bakker’s conclusion may be logical, it
may also be important to remember that the metal oxide layer
used in smart glass is extremely thin. In the case of
RMIT’s glass, the coating is 50-150 nanometers in
thickness, which is thinner than a human hair.
But since 90% of all manufactured glass is comprised of
silica, sodium carbonate (soda ash) and calcium carbonate
(limestone), building retrofits and the increasing trend toward
using glass in new buildings may mean that the growth in demand
for these materials will continue.
Industrial Minerals assessed the price for soda ash,
European, synthetic, dense and light, large contracts,
ex-works at €190-210 ($227-251) per tonne on May 10,
up from €180-200 per tonne on February 22. Prices moved up
recently on tight supply in the European market.