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Glass is the traditional, functional material for everything from windows and sliding doors to modern room dividers. However, it has the caveat that it usually comes in only one form – that is to say, traditional glass is either clear or frosted – and requires cleaning and maintenance, which can become an expensive task if the glass in question is the ceiling of a large building. As global prices soar and energy conservation becomes more desirable, modern technology reacted by developing a customizable, effective, and useful alternative: smart glass.

What is smart glass?

Smart glass is a revolutionary type of glass with special electrically alterable properties. When electricity is applied to a panel of smart glass, the amount of light and heat allowed through the glass changes. This is accomplished through the use of microscopic blinds, electrochromic devices (the amount of light permitted is in direct correlation to the voltage applied), suspended particle devices (electricity reorders particles, changing an obscured surface into a clear one), and liquid crystal devices. The unique properties of smart glass operate due to the simple principle of electromagnetic fields. Using micro-blinds as an example, the property change of the smart glass is due to the applied activation of an electromagnetic field that flattens the micro-blinds. When not in use, the blinds revert back to their original rolled-up form, which permits light to enter. When particle devices are used, the electricity applied forces the particles to form rows of ordered lines, and the ordering of these lines (which can be in geometric patterns if desired) clears the glass of translucency.

Smart glass technology has been under development since early 2009, and has continued to grow as an area of innovation. As recently as 2011, scientists from Tartu University developed a spray-on gel with electronic properties, allowing the glass to become clear when electricity is applied. When coupled with nanotechnology, the potential for smart glass increases exponentially – glass can be self-repairing, self-cleaning, reactive to changes in weather, and water-repellant. Smart phones, tablets, and computers already use a form of smart glass that is responsive to the electromagnetic charge of the human body, and the development of this technology can be expected only to increase in innovation and usage as time progresses.

How can smart glass be used?

Smart glass is fantastically beneficial not only in regard to the options it offers, but also in terms of environmental impact. Smart glass can reduce the cost of heating, air-conditioning, and lighting, and can be used as a dual-purpose projector light screen. In terms of healthcare, smart glass technology may replace traditional window blinds or curtains, which can harbor dust and bugs and reduce the need for cleaning. Smart glass contains the potential for a variety of artistic and aesthetic uses, such as outdoor art installations, architectural enhancement, and is even currently used in elevators, such as those in the Washington Monument, to provide passengers with a previously unattainable view. The potential for this new technology is boundless, and as it develops, the world can expect a cleaner, healthier, and more cost-effective way to look at – and through – glass.