New research takes optimistic view of smart glass

While price and production capacity remain batteries, a new report predicts annual demand will reach 3.1 million square meters annually by 2020, compared with just 110,000 square meters currently.

Anticipated new production capacity that is scheduled to start up in 2013 could help trigger a tipping point for smart glass - a green technology that many architects and construction companies that care about sustainable business practices are evaluating for its energy-efficiency qualities.

Indeed, a new report from Pike Research predicts that demand for this material will reach nearly 3.1 million square meters annually in 2020. That compares with just 110,000 square meters for this year.

The overall revenue generated by smart glass will grow to $693 million, with demand particularly high in China, which has adopted extensive green and net-zero building operating standards for new construction.

So, that means smart glass will still be a relatively niche product eight years from now.

“While significant barriers stand in the way of the broader adoption of smart glass - chief among them reliability and price – the market potential for smart glass is high,” said Pike senior research analyst Eric Bloom, in a press release about the report. “As long-term performance is proven, prices decline, and substantial returns on investment are demonstrated, designers, engineers, and building managers will find expanding applications for these innovative materials.”

Unlike static glass windows, walls and other architectural design elements, so-called smart glass contains techology or components that are designed to improve the thermal performance and energy consumption of buildings. Innovation in this sector is closely tied to research and development into liquid crystal, electrochromic, suspended particle and thermochromic technologies.

At a minimum, the material can be designed or programmed to switch states throughout the day so that it optimizes ambient lighting or temperature conditions. Two of the better-backed players in the market are View (formerly known as Soladigm) and SAGE Electrochromics.

Applications for smart glass abound across both the construction sector and in transportation, where it is being used in sunroofs and side windows to help control glare and heat.

Two big barriers remain to the market:

1) Installation and lifespan considerations. Pike reports that glazing units could last 20 to 25 years before being replaced, but there isn't much research into lifespan or reliability over time.

2) Price. Right now, the cost of installing a smart glass facade can be double or triple the cost of high-performance static glass, according to the report. These facades can represent 10 percent to 20 percent of overall construction costs for a given project, so that extra expense is not insubstantial. It means construction companies and architects need to do their homework in order to make the return on investment case - things like how the glass will offset the need for shades or blinds, or how much it can save in terms of energy consumption need to be factored into the equation. The emergence of new production capacity next year could help shrink that price differential.

For more about the market:

Looking into smart glass