Sage Electrochromics has spent more than two decades perfecting a technology that tints glass against sunlight and heat. But the Fairbault, Minn.–based manufacturer hadn’t made headway selling its products to residential window makers such as Andersen or Marvin because Sage didn't have the capacity to mass-produce its product for new-home construction, and therefore couldn't offer it cost effectively.
That all changed this past November, when Saint-Gobain, the global building products supplier, invested $80 million to acquire a 50 percent stake in Sage. This alliance—along with $72 million in loan guarantees from the DOE and a $1 million loan from the state of Minnesota—enabled Sage to break ground on a 300,000-square-foot, $135 million electrochromic glass plant, which should go online in the third quarter of 2012, says Jim Wilson, Sage’s chief marketing officer.
France-based Saint-Gobain will share patents, research, and development with Sage, and market Sage’s glass under its Quantum Glass brand, which Saint-Gobain launched in 2009. Thomas Bertin-Mourot, Quantum’s president and Saint-Gobain’s vice president of marketing, says Quantum plans to open offices in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2011.
Without getting technical, Wilson explains how electrochromics work: Up to five layers of ceramic film are applied to glass. A low-voltage electrical current stimulates lithium ions from one layer to another to create elements that provide barriers to heat and light, which are absorbed and reradiated from the glass surface. “It’s like looking through dark sunglasses,” says Wilson about the tinting, which is programmable electronically.
At least for the next several years, Bertin-Mourot thinks demand will come primarily from commercial and industrial sectors seeking energy efficiency. Both he and Wilson, though, see aesthetic applications for the high-end residential market, where, says Wilson, “high value focuses on the view.” It could take five years before Sage and Saint-Gobain can lower costs enough to attract residential window makers on a mass scale. But more immediate opportunities might come from skylight suppliers such as Denmark-based Velux, which has experimented with tinted glass before.
“Velux is very interested in the continued advance of electrochromic technology,” says Joe Patrick, Velux America’s national product marketing manager. “Where sunlight is prevalent and intense, this technology has the ability to reduce solar heat gain passing through glass by greater than 70 percent. Such control of light and heat will allow for more building structures that maximize daylighting and a connection to the outdoors through glass windows and skylights, yet have lower operating costs.”