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Windows of the Future: Carbon Nanotubes and On-Site Energy Generation

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Macroeconomics course on a blogging series about “the economics of sustainability.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Andrew Shiflet
In the building industry, designers and builders must balance a client’s desire for expansive outdoor views with the need to minimize solar heat gain and loss.  Often, these desires are not well balanced and solar heat is allowed to penetrate through windowpanes and into a space.  To remedy this, mechanical engineers design costly and wasteful heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems that absorb and remove the unwanted heat.  This practice will continue unless we shift the paradigm of window systems design and re-conceive its role in the overall building system.  Fortunately, nanotechnology engineers may have found a solution to this problem using carbon atoms.

The nanotechnology industry, also referred to as nanotech, has been the subject of numerous headlines in recent years, as new possibilities and applications discovered by scientists around the world help to transform technology, medicine, and building materials. Nanotech, which manipulates materials on an atomic and molecular scale, has shown great promise in reshaping the way products are designed because materials have unique properties and characteristics when viewed at the nanoscale.

Recent discoveries about carbon on the nanoscale have researchers and entrepreneurs alike wondering how it can alter or replace conventional materials and help solve problems like the one of solar heat gain.  For instance, what if one could use carbon’s unique characteristics to capture the sun’s heat energy at the windowpane before it penetrates the glazing, convert it to electricity, and store it for later use?

Justin Hall-Tipping, CEO and founder of the Connecticut based company, Nanoholdings, is working with a global team of engineers to develop this technology.  In an incredible breakthrough, scientists discovered that special sheets of carbon nanotubes, 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, possess the ability to flicker between transparent and opaque states, and everywhere in between.  This can be useful if the carbon nanotube sheet is applied to a windowpane, because when in a transparent state, light and heat are able to penetrate through, often beneficial during cold winter months.  However, using a short two-volt pulse, the sheet of nanotubes can change to become entirely opaque.  In this state, light and heat cannot penetrate through, and the energy is absorbed and transmitted through the nanotubes, which are 1,000 times more conductive than copper, into an advanced battery unit, designed just for this use.

Researchers are hard at work exploring the nano-world and according to the National Science Foundation, the field is “at a level of development similar to that of computer technology in the 1950s,” (according to Nanoholdings' website). Exciting advancements and applications are being uncovered every day that will soon help us enhance the ways we deal with challenges.  Harvesting the Sun’s energy at the building surface will transform our buildings into localized power plants and make a tremendous impact on sustainability in the building industry.

Andrew Shiflet is currently a graduate student in sustainable business at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA.

[Image credit: Julian E..., Flickr]

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