Clear Signs of Innovation in Glass

Glass has been made for thousands of years, and innovators have always been tinkering to improve the basic product.  Over the years, these improvements have mainly been in terms of color, strength, weight, quality.  The cleantech imperative of the past few decades is now pushing glass innovations on two more dimensions, energy efficiency and power generation.

Regarding energy efficiency, the big issue with windows is energy transfer.  Of course, glass is more thermally conductive than most other building materials, so windows let out more heat in the winter and let in more heat in the summer than the rest of the building.  As such, improving the thermal-insulation of windows has long been pursued, such as through storm windows.

However, another angle on the efficiency topic is via the use of electrochromics, which uses chemistry to change the tint of the glass based on the amount of sunlight.  You’ve no doubt seen these on sunglasses:  the glasses turn darker in bright sunlight, and lighten up inside.  Well, these are now increasingly being applied to windows, so as to reduce the amount of energy (heat) transmitted through the glass.  SAGE Electrochromics of Minnesota, recently bought by the French giant Saint-Gobain (Paris: SGO), is arguably the leader in this field. 

With respect to power generation, a number of inventors have been dabbling with photovoltaics integrated into glass.  Most of this work has been to incorporate solar collecting material into the entire pane, but this recent article discusses some efforts at TU Delft in the Netherlands to use the glass as a lens to focus the light onto solar cells at the periphery of the window.

The moral of this story is:  even something invisible like glass is subject to advancement as part of the cleantech movement.


It’s A Nano World

For the uninitiated, “nanotechnology” refers to the science of the very small, engineering particles and their corresponding materials at the nanometer scale.  For a sense of perspective, at one-billionth of a meter, a nanometer is about 1/60,000 of the width of a human hair, so we’re talking engineering not just at the microscopic scale, but the electron-microscopic scale.

Why bother?  Because researchers from across a number of disciplines have discovered that engineering particles at such minute scale can change the fundamental performance characteristics of the material.  You want a material that captures a certain wavelength of light, or transmits a certain frequency of energy?  You just might be able to obtain it by tweaking currently available materials at the nanoscale, to change the “morphology” (think texture) of the particles so that they behave in the desired way.

The nano-world is sometimes mind-bending.  For instance, with enough wrinkles, folds or pockets, a particle with the volume of a grain of sand can have a surface area much greater than that of a basketball.  When you’re able to play topological tricks like this, amazing performance improvements in even the most basic stuff can be achieved.

As this capability has been increasingly revealed in the past decade or so, more and more acadmic research and an increasing number of companies are investigating how nano-engineering can improve the performance of all sorts of things.  This is especially true for the cleantech arena. 

Product innovation ranges across the map:  nanomaterials optimized for increased performance of membranes for fuel cells and cathodes for batteries, enhanced thermal insulation for building materials, higher capacity of contaminant capture from water, and on and on and on.

At few weeks ago, as the investment banking firm Livingston Securities convened their 7th Annual Nanotechnology Conference in New York City, Crystal Research Associates released a new report, entitled “Nanotechnology and the Built Environment:  The Transition to Green Infrastructure”.  This document profiles some of the seemingly-mature industrial sectors that are being transformed by nanotechnology, including some of the biggest corporations in the world such as GE (NYSE: GE), BASF (Deutsche:  BAS), Siemens (NYSE:  SIE) and Honeywell (NYSE:  HON) working on some of the smallest scales imaginable.

The report covers many of the sectors you’d expect to be revolutionized by materials enhancements, such as photovoltaics and lighting, but also touches on a couple of real surprises.  For instance, consider NanoSteel – a company that is commercializing metallic coating technology developed at the Idaho National Laboratory to improve the performance of structural metals under challenging environmental conditions, such as high temperature or corrosion.

In addition to NanoSteel, other presenters at Livingston’s nanotech conference that particularly piqued my personal interest included Siluria (developing an approach to convert methane into ethylene, thereby reducing the requirement for petroleum to make plastics) and QM Power (offering a new basic design of motors and generators promising higher-efficiencies).

It’s always interesting to go to events such as this to get exposed to companies working under the radar screen that are aiming to achieve fascinating innovations, sometimes in the most mundane or obscure areas.  Even if not all these companies will ultimately be successful, either in serving customer needs or in generating good returns to investors, it’s heartening to note the degree and scope of creative disruption that continues to seethe in our world of incredible challenges, turbulence and pessimism/cynicism. 

Many players thinking big about the future are moving small, as small as possible.