Seeing the Light Italcementi’s i.light panels covered two-fifths of the exterior surface of Italy’s pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.
Courtesy Italcementi Group Seeing the Light Italcementi’s i.light panels covered two-fifths of the exterior surface of Italy’s pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

Last October, at the Greenbuild convention in Toronto, Ontario, the Cement Association of Canada exhibited two precast concrete walls, each 13 feet high by 6.75 feet wide. No surprise there. But what wowed attendees were the glimmers of light seeping through the structures.

The light-emitting panels, dubbed i.light, were first devised by the Italian architect Giampaolo Imbrighi for his design of the Italian pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China. Italcementi Group, a 147-year-old manufacturer based in Bergamo, Italy, produced the panels. Now Italcementi, whose North American subsidiary is headquartered in Nazareth, Pa., is trying to ascertain whether there are commercial or residential markets for this process.

Enrico Borgarello, Italcementi’s innovation director, says that for the past 15 years his company has had an interest in the interaction between concrete and light. It has made products with brighter surfaces and cements that reduce air pollutants. But Italcementi didn’t intend to make translucent panels for public consumption until it received unexpectedly positive feedback about the World Expo pavilion, 40 percent of whose 50,784 square feet of exterior surface was covered by 3,774 of the panels.

The company holds two patents, on the product and the process, though Borgarello spoke only generally about how transparency is induced. Here’s what’s known: A panel includes about 50 slits, 2.3 millimeters wide each. The holes are filled with a transmissive polyester/resin that captures and channels the light hitting the surface. Borgarello says the panels are cast with a polymer that’s mixed with a specially formulated cement paste, which adheres to the plastic without creating cracks. The admixture is commercially available, but what Italcementi brings to the table is its expertise in formulating and mixing.

Borgarello says the product’s production cost is similar to conventional concrete and matches its strength. However, Italcementi sees i.light eventually competing more with specialty glass products.

When he spoke with Builder in late November, Borgarello was visiting Italcementi’s facility in Nazareth, where he and his team were working on ways to promote i.light in the U.S. He sees the panels being ideal for shopping centers because they could help reduce energy costs by letting in more natural and artificial light during the day.

For residential applications, Italcementi is developing a special product that Borgarello says would be more decorative than structural and could be used to augment exterior surfaces or separate rooms within a home. Making the product in the U.S. eventually “is a possibility,” he says.