Smart glass

Smart glass

Smart glass or switchable glass, also called smart windows or switchable windows in its application to windows or skylights, refers to electrically switchable glass or glazing which changes light transmission properties when voltage is applied.

Certain types of smart glass can allow users to control the amount of light and heat passing through: with the press of a button, it changes from transparent to opaque, partially blocking light while maintaining a clear view of what lies behind the window. Another type of smart glass can provide privacy at the turn of a switch.

Smart glass technologies are electrochromic devices, suspended particle devices, and liquid crystal devices.

The use of smart glass can save costs for heating, air-conditioning and lighting and avoid the cost of installing and maintaining motorized light screens or blinds or curtains. When opaque, liquid crystal or electrochromic smart glass blocks most UV, thereby reducing fabric fading; for SPD-type smart glass, this is achieved when used in conjunction with low-e low emissivity coatings.

Critical aspects of smart glass include installation costs, the use of electricity, durability, as well as functional features such as the speed of control, possibilities for dimming, and the degree of transparency of the glass.

Electrically switchable smart glass

Electrochromic devices

Electrochromic devices change light transmission properties in response to voltage and thus allow to control the amount of light and heat passing through. In electrochromic windows, the electrochromic material changes its opacity: it changes between a colored, translucent state (usually blue) and a transparent state. A burst of electricity is required for changing its opacity, but once the change has been effectuated, no electricity is needed for maintaining the particular shade which has been reached. Darkening occurs from the edges, moving inward, and is a slow process, ranging from many seconds to several minutes depending on window size. Electrochromic glass provides visibility even in the darkened state and thus preserves visible contact with the outside environment. It has been used in small-scale applications such as rearview mirrors. Electrochromic technology also finds use in indoor applications, for example, for protection of objects under the glass of museum display cases and picture frame glass from the damaging effects of the UV and visible wavelengths of artificial light.

Recent advances in electrochromic materials pertaining to transition-metal hydride electrochromics have led to the development of reflective hydrides, which become reflective rather than absorbing, and thus switch states between transparent and mirror-like.

Suspended particle devices

In suspended particle devices (SPDs), a thin film laminate of rod-like particles suspended in a fluid is placed between two glass or plastic layers, or attached to one layer. When no voltage is applied, the suspended particles are arranged in random orientations and tend to absorb light, so that the glass panel looks dark (or opaque), blue or, in more recent developments, grey or black colour. When voltage is applied, the suspended particles align and let light pass. SPDs can be dimmed, and allow instant control of the amount of light and heat passing through. A small but constant electrical current is required for keeping the SPD smart window in its transparent stage.

Polymer dispersed liquid crystal devices

In polymer dispersed liquid crystal devices (PDLCs), liquid crystal droplets are arranged in a sheet between two layers of glass. In the "off" state, they are randomly oriented and, when switched on, they align according to the electric field. The liquid crystals scatter light, without blocking it, thus the glass looks white even when in its transparent state. There is a possibility of controlling the amount of light and heat passing through, as discovered by SmartGlass International, when tints and special innerlayers are used. It is also possible to create fire-rated and anti X-Ray versions for use in special applications. The device operates in on or off states only. This technology has been used in interior and exterior settings for privacy control (for example conference rooms, intensive-care areas, bathroom/shower doors) and as a temporary projection screen. It has been marketed under the name of "LC SmartGlass or switchable privacy glass". SPD Systems manufactures and markets this glass under the name of "SmartScreen". A new (3rd) generation of switchable privacy film /glass, called 3G Privacy Film or NPD-LCD, is available now. NPD-LCD technology has greatly reduced haze level in clear state, lowered driving voltage from 80-100V to 20V and extended operational life-time many times.

Related areas of technology

The expression smart glass can be interpreted in a wider sense to include also glazings that change light transmission properties in response to an environmental signal such as light or temperature.

  • Different types of glazing can show a variety of chromic phenomena, that is, based on photochemical effects the glazing changes its light transmission properties in response to an environmental signal such as light (photochromism), temperature (thermochromism), or voltage (electrochromism).
  • Liquid crystals, when they are in a thermotropic state, can change light transmission properties in response to temperature.
  • Tungsten doped Vanadium dioxide VO2 coating reflects infrared light when the temperature rises over 29 degrees Celsius, to block out sunlight transmission through windows at high ambient temperatures.

These types of glazing cannot be controlled manually. In contrast, all electrically switched smart windows can be made to automatically adapt their light transmission properties in response to temperature or brightness by integration with a thermometer or photosensor, respectively.

The topic of smart windows in a wider sense includes also self-cleaning glass and the automatic opening or closing of windows for ventilation purposes, for example according to a timer or in response to a rain sensor.

Examples of Use

Smart Glass using one of the aforementioned technologies has been seen in a number of high profile applications in the past year. SmartGlass International have completed large scale installations such as the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin where over 800,000 people per year can see LC SmartGlass being used in interactive displays and privacy windows. LC SmartGlass was used to launch the Nissan Micra CC in London using a four-sided glass box made up of 150 switchable glass panels which switched in sequence to create a striking outdoor display. The main use for LC SmartGlass is in internal partitions where many companies now enjoy the ability to switch screens and doors from clear to private.

In the media, for example, the updated set for the Seven Network's Sunrise program features a Smart Glass background that uses liquid crystal switchable glass (AGP UMU Glass) supplied by Architectural Glass Projects. The technology is especially suited to this purpose, as the set was originally open to a public place, meaning that people could do obscene things behind the presenters. The new set with Smart Glass allows the street scene to be visible at times, or replaced with either opaque or transparent blue colouring, masking the view.

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner features electrochromic windows which replace the pull down window shades on existing aircraft.

Kilwin's and Sloan's Ice Cream in Florida, USA are famous for having a bathroom whose door or walls are made of smart glass. When the door is unlocked, the glass in the bathroom is transparent, allowing a full view of the interior. When the door is locked, the glass becomes opaque, providing privacy for the occupant.

Smart glass was and is used for cars in small series. The Ferrari 575 M Superamerica had an electrochromic roof as standard and the Maybach has a PDLC roof as option.

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