Electrochromic glass -- glass that can tint, dim or reflect light based on sunlight level or electronic control -- have been the energy-saving window material of the future for years now. So far, however, the technology has only had small-scale uptake, with factors such as cost, complexity of installation, and uncertain measures of return on investment rendering it a hard sell.
In the meantime, startups such as View (formerly Soladigm) have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, along with a series of strategic partnerships with big window and glass makers like U.S. giant Guardian Industries and France’s Saint-Gobain, which bought startup Sage in 2012.
Pharmaceutical giant Merck doesn’t seem to fit into that strategic partner profile. But as the world’s biggest maker of the materials that go into liquid crystal displays (LCDs), it does have an interesting perspective on the potential for electronically modifiable glass in many different applications beyond windows.
On Monday, Merck announced it was taking complete ownership of Peer+, a Dutch startup it’s been working with for some time on the electrochromic glass front. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Peer+ features former Merck organic chemist and LCD scientist Andy Cumming as CEO. Its flagship product is called “Smart Energy Glass,” which the company says can switch from “bright” to “dark” modes, as well as an opaque “privacy” mode, all using energy generated from the sunlight striking the panel.
That self-generating aspect is a new twist in the smart windows space. Most windows have tended to come in versions that either react directly to different levels of sunlight -- energy-efficient, but less controllable -- and electronically controlled windows, which require electricity to operate.
Self-generating “solar glass” isn’t a new idea, but usually it’s presented as a way to generate useful amounts of energy at a reasonable cost, which hasn’t happened yet. Using self-generated energy to actuate electrochromic controls is a nifty twist on the concept, and could be useful in reducing the cost and complexity of wiring the systems.
The website of Peer+ states that it’s working on a pilot project in the Netherlands, with partners including Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, Incubator 3+, DPI Value Center, Agentschap NL and Stichting Techniek en Wetenschap. The company also notes that a second phase of the project “will focus on the production of the switching element” of its smart glass product, and will be targeted for use in window glazing.
Smart windows can have a big impact on building energy bills, mainly by shading out direct sunlight on hot days and letting it in on cooler days. But the technology will need to tackle several issues to broaden its appeal -- mainly reducing costs, but also making it more reliable and far simpler to install.