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Scientists Reach Milestone In Quest For Smart Windows


Not that I know this from any personal experience, but getting an invention to work right does not happen overnight. It can actually take years of trial and error. It's time for Joe's Big Idea, our series exploring the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Today, NPR's Joe Palca has the story of an energy saving device called a Smart Window that's being developed at a Department of Energy lab in California.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: At the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California, Delia Milliron and her colleagues have been making microscopic crystals called nanocrystals out of indium and tin. As they report in today's issue of the journal Nature, when you impregnate a special glass with these nanocrystals, you get a window that can block either the warming rays from the sun or the light rays from the sun, or both.

Normally, a paper in Nature spells the end of a project. Not so with Milliron's quest to bring smart windows to the consumer. This project has been going on for years and it's got years to go. What's more, NPR has been reporting on this project for a while. Here's Milliron talking to NPR in 2011.


PALCA: Milliron made Wanda so it could assemble and test different ingredients for making her nanocrystals. And here's Milliron talking to me colleague Richard Harris in March of this year.


PALCA: Herman is a faster more sophisticated robot that can make and test nanocrystals faster than Wanda. Milliron needs Herman because she needs to make her nanocrystal out of cheaper materials.


PALCA: Indium costs about $250 a pound. Milliron is going to have to find cheaper ingredients if she wants to make her smart windows cost competitive. And even if she can do that, there's still the matter of scale-up. Making a window in a lab is one thing. Manufacturing tens of thousands of windows is another. So how long will it be before these windows start appearing in buildings or homes?

Well, that's a tough question to answer. When Milliron and her colleagues first started talking about their smart windows a year and a half ago, they thought the answer would be three years. Expectations hadn't changed when Milliron told Richard Harris earlier this year.


PALCA: And when I talked to her last week, she said there was progress but still a ways to go.

: We're discussing with very large scale glass manufacturers what really needs to happen to make it viable for broad deployment in architectural glass.

PALCA: The point here is that getting a good idea out of the lab and into the show room requires patience, hard work, and yeah, maybe even a bit of luck. When Milliron talked to Richard, she spelled out for him the hurdles that lie ahead: finding the right materials, scaling up the manufacturing process, making glass that's free from defects.


PALCA: I'll check back with Milliron in a couple of years or so and let you know how she's doing. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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