Smart Windows Get Smarter, Can Now Control Light and Heat Independently
August 15, 2013 2:34 PM
Windows can convert sunlight into IR heating on demand
" are a hot new field of research in the building industry.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
39 percent of all power use in the United States and 72 percent of electricity use.
On average a household pays $2,000 USD a year in energy costs relating to their home, and of that over half goes to heating and cooling. Thus smart windows -- which have the potential to save on energy cost by either generating electricity via
transparent solar panels
or by modifying the sunlight passing through them -- are being closely watched by the half trillion-dollar U.S. building industry.
One team actively pioneering smart window technology is
's nanocrystal research team at the
, a research center within the
U.S. Department of Energy
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
(LBNL). Professor Milliron's research focuses on windows that "switch" their transparency, based on an applied electric charge.
The smart window dream team -- (from left:) Guillermo Garcia, Delia Milliron, and Anna Llordés
In a 2011 paper,
[PDF] in the ACS journal
, Prof. Milliron and her team showed that windows containing special nanocrystals could be used to selectively control the light. The windows exploited the electrochromic effect, which uses a burst of charge (2.5 volts) to rearrange particles, changing the color and/or transparency of the material. In her latest work,
in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal
, Prof. Milliron shows off a much more advanced version of this technology, which her team is in the early stages of commercialize.
The window control layer is now made with a soupy "matrix" of niobium oxid (NbO
) and nanocrystals of
indium tin oxide
(ITO). Together the materials act synergistically to allow the user to control both the amount of light passing through the window,
the amount of light that is converted to heat.
Green -- the NbOx matrix; blue -- ITO nanocrystals
This dual functionality is critical, as past designs suffered from single-mode syndrome. For example a material that could be switched on to solely increase heat (via near infrared (NIR) light production) would perform poorly during the summer months, as it would be unable to cool the building by blocking sunlight. By contrast a material that blocked sunlight but did not produce heat would be useless in the winter months when solar heating was desired.
The new material packs both of those functionalities into a single package allowing the user accommodate all seasons.
Describes Prof. Milliron:
In the US, we spend about a quarter of our total energy on lighting, heating and cooling our buildings. When used as a window coating, our new material can have a major impact on building energy efficiency.
From a materials-design perspective, we've shown that you can combine very dissimilar materials to create new properties that are not accessible in a homogeneous single phase material, either amorphous or crystalline, by taking nanocrystals and putting them in glass.
The most exciting part has been taking this project all the way from synthesizing a new material, to understanding it in great detail, and finally to realizing a completely new functionality that can have a big impact on technology. Taking a materials development project all the way through that process is really quite remarkable. It really speaks to what we can do at Berkeley Lab, where you have access to not just the scientific facilities but also to people who can inform your perspective.
On a final note, one critical barrier to commercialization is
the rarity of the metals used
and niobium. However, in a fortunate twist the two nanomaterials interact with each other synergistically. While the interface between them is tiny, it manages to greatly amplify the behavior of each material, meaning you need to use much less material (i.e. you can use a thinner thin film). This ultimately makes the "smart windows" much closer to commercial reality than past designs.
“So far we have not seen a single Android device that does not infringe on our patents." -- Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith
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