Glass is an amazing material and our buildings would be dark, dingy, cold, and damp without it. But it has its drawbacks too. It lets in light and heat even when you don’t want it to. On a blinding summer’s day, the more heat (“solar gain”) that enters your building the more you’ll need to use your air-conditioning—a horrible waste of energy that costs you money and harms the environment. That’s why most of the windows in homes and offices are fitted with curtains or blinds. If you’re into interior design and remodeling, you might think furnishings like this are neat and attractive—but in cold, practical, scientific terms they’re a nuisance. Let’s be honest about this: curtains and blinds are a technological kludge to make up for glass’s big, built-in drawback: it’s transparent (or translucent) even when you don’t want it to be.
Since the early 20th century, people have got used to the idea of buildings that are increasingly automated. We have electric clothes washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and much more. So why not fit our homes with electric windows that can change from clear to dark automatically? Smart windows (also referred to by the names smart glass, switchable windows, and dynamic windows) do exactly that using a scientific idea called electrochromism, in which materials change color (or switch from transparent to opaque) when you apply an electrical voltage across them. Typically smart windows start off a blueish color and gradually (over a few minutes) turn transparent when the electric current passes through them.
How does electrochromic glass work?
Ordinary windows are made from a single vertical pane of glass and double-glazed windows have two glass panes separated by an air gap to improve heat insulation and soundproofing (to keep the heat and noise on one side or the other). More sophisticated windows (using low-e heat-reflective glass) are coated with a thin layer of metallic chemicals so they keep your home warm in winter and cool in summer. Electrochromic windows work a little bit like this, only the metal-oxide coatings they use are much more sophisticated and deposited by processes similar to those used in the manufacture of integrated circuits (silicon computer chips).
Although we often talk about “electrochromic glass,” a window like this can be made of either glass or plastic (technically called the “substrate,” or base material) coated with multiple thin layers by a process known as sputtering (a precise way of adding thin films of one material onto another). On its inside surface (facing into your home), the window has a double-sandwich of five ultra-thin layers: a separator in the middle, two electrodes (thin electrical contacts) on either side of the separator, and then two transparent electrical contact layers on either side of the electrodes. The basic working principle involves lithium ions (positively charged lithium atoms—with missing electrons) that migrate back and forth between the two electrodes through the separator. Normally, when the window is clear, the lithium ions reside in the innermost electrode (that’s on the left in the diagram you can see here), which is made of something like lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2). When a small voltage is applied to the electrodes, the ions migrate through the separator to the outermost electrode (the one on the right in this diagram). When they “soak” into that layer (which is made of something like polycrystalline tungsten oxide, WO3), they make it reflect light, effectively turning it opaque. They remain there all by themselves until the voltage is reversed, causing them to move back so the window turns transparent once again. No power is needed to maintain electrochromic windows in their clear or dark state—only to change them from one state to the other.
What’s good and bad about electrochromic windows?
Smart windows might sound like a gimmick, but they have a huge environmental benefit. In their darkened state, they reflect back virtually all (about 98 percent of) the light falling on them, so they can dramatically reduce the need for air-conditioning (both the huge cost of installing it and the day-to-day cost of running it). Since they’re electrically operated, they can easily be controlled by a smart-home system or a sunlight sensor, whether there are people inside the building or not. According to scientists at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), windows like this could save up to 8 percent of a building’s total energy consumption; they use only tiny amounts of electricity to switch from dark to light (100 windows use about as much energy as a single incandescent lamp) so make a huge net energy saving overall. Other benefits of smart windows include privacy at the flick of a switch (no more fumbling around with clumsy, dusty curtains and blinds), convenience (automatically darkening windows can save your upholstery and pictures from fading), and improved security (electrically operated curtains are notoriously unreliable).
Photo: Hot stuff! This thermal (infrared) image shows how hot a car gets when you park it in direct sunlight: colors indicate temperatures with red and yellow hottest and blue coldest. Electrochromic glass fitted to a car might help to solve this problem. You’d simply flick a switch to darken the windows when you parked and the vehicle would be nice and cool when you came back! Photo courtesy of US Department of Energy.
It’s a given that glass printed with electrodes and fancy metal coatings is going to be considerably more expensive to install than ordinary glass: a single large smart window might cost as much as $1000! There are also questions about how durable the materials are, with current windows degrading in performance after only 10–20 years (a much shorter life than most homeowners would expect from traditional glazing). Another drawback of current windows is the time they take to change from clear to opaque and back again: several minutes, not several seconds as you might expect. But don’t forget this is new technology—it’s early days yet!
How will smart windows improve in future?
Currently smart windows are installed as self-contained units: you fit an entire window unit with its specially coated glass at great expense. In the future, scientists working on electrochromic technology hope to develop very thin coatings that could be retro-fitted to existing windows, greatly reducing the cost of the process. (Picture a reel of self-adhesive plastic that you stick on your existing windows as a weekend DIY project.)
Another possibility might be to combine electrochromic windows and solar cells so that instead of uselessly reflecting away sunlight, darkened smart windows could soak up that energy and store it for later. It’s easy to imagine windows that capture some of the solar energy falling on them during the day and store it in batteries that can power lights inside your home at night, though, of course, a window can’t be 100 percent transparent and working as a 100 percent efficient solar panel at the same time. The incoming energy is either transmitted through the glass or absorbed and stored, but not both. A window that doubled as a solar cell would likely involve compromise from both sides: it’d be a relatively dark window even when clear and much less efficient at capturing energy than a really good solar cell.
One thing we can be sure of is seeing much more of electrochromic technology in future!