[Image above] Credit: Logie Urquhart, Flickr CC-BY-NC 2.0

Glass—so much of our high-tech, modern lives wouldn’t exist without it.

Glass keeps us safer on the roads, turns windows into power sources, and enables land speed record attempts, among so many other impressive feats.

And glass just keeps getting smarter.

It repairs human bodies, helps keep our buildings cooler in the heat, and the material is well on its way to achieving nearly indestructible strength status.

But the latest innovation in glass technology comes out of the University of British Columbia in Canada. Researchers there are imagining what it would be like if the window in your living room could play double duty as a giant thermostat or even a big screen TV.

Sounds amazing, right?

The team, lead by UBC associate professor Kenneth Chau, may be one step closer to making such an amazing fantasy a reality.

Chau and his colleagues found that coating small pieces of glass with extremely thin layers of metal—like silver—makes it possible to enhance the amount of light coming through the glass, explains a recent UBC news release about the work. Because metals naturally conduct electricity, this power pairing may make it possible to add advanced technologies to windowpanes and other glass objects.

“Engineers are constantly trying to expand the scope of materials that they can use for display technologies, and having thin, inexpensive, see-through components that conduct electricity will be huge,” says Chau in the release. “I think one of the most important implications of this research is the potential to integrate electronic capabilities into windows and make them smart.”


Chau holds a glass sample used in his latest research, which proved that putting thin layers of metal over glass increases light transmission. Credit: University of British Columbia

Chau explains that phase two of this research will be to “incorporate their invention onto windows with an aim to selectively filter light and heat waves depending on the season or time of day.”

A typical method used to create energy-efficient window coatings is to apply glass over metal, the release explains. Chau collaborated with Loïc Markley, assistant professor of engineering at UBC, to question what would happen if they reversed the concept.

“It’s been known for quite a while that you could put glass on metal to make metal more transparent, but people have never put metal on top of glass to make glass more transparent,” Markley says. “It’s counter-intuitive to think that metal could be used to enhance light transmission, but we saw that this was actually possible, and our experiments are the first to prove it.”

The research, published in the open-access journal Scientific Reports, is “Boosting the Transparency of Thin Layers by Coatings of Opposing Susceptibility: How Metals Help See Through Dielectrics” (DOI: 10.1038/srep20659).