Opportunities for Smart Surfaces in the Construction Sector

The construction industry has re-oriented itself around energy-efficiency and new forms of energy, especially solar panels. More recently, we have seen deployment of smart systems designed to inject more intelligence into homes and industrial/commercial real estate.

In a somewhat revived construction sector, n-tech Research foresees opportunities for smart surfaces in these areas and while the solar panel sector has taken something of a hit from collapsing prices and slow erosion of subsidies, there can be no doubt that it is here to stay.  Similarly, absent the complete collapse of energy prices LEED and near-zero energy buildings are likely to play a growing role in the construction industry.

There are several areas where we think that smart surfaces are going to present interesting plays for advanced materials firms of various kinds.

Smart Windows

Self-dimming windows are yet not widely implemented, but n-tech believes that they will be able to provide real value in homes, offices and commercial buildings in a sustainable building environment.

The opportunity here goes well beyond achieve a cooling impact in buildings, since self-tinting smart windows add a whole new level of control and responsiveness to “smart windows.” In addition to enhanced functionality, smart windows may be a market differentiator for buildings of all kinds.

Control for active smart-dimming windows is provided mainly by electronics.  However, it is possible to imagine smart coated glass being replaced by an active smart surface that is more responsive than today’s passive self-dimming windows, but at a lower cost than current active self-dimming coatings.

The fact that there are already some very large glass firms in the self-dimming windows space bodes well for the availability of funding in this space.

Self-Cleaning Surfaces

Self-cleaning surfaces for construction applications seem to be at a relatively early stage of development and the market is certainly open to new ways of doing self-cleaning surfaces that are more effective at every level.  The most familiar self-cleaning surface for buildings at this point in time is probably self-cleaning windows and some self-cleaning surfaces are also appropriate for building-integrated photovoltaic panels.

However, this kind of self-cleaning glass will require a leap forward in terms of the technology being used to give it the functionality that could take it to the next stage and let it address mass markets.

There is, however, considerable interest in improving the performance of hydrophobic coatings with new techniques.  Some of the research in this space is directed to pumping up the performance and creating what are known as “super-hydrophobic coatings.”  The opportunities here seem to be wide open, with no obvious winners, although, once again, the glass firms have the advantage in the key self-cleaning windows space.

On the other hand, n-tech believes that to really find a significant business opportunity the products that will have to be presented to the market will have to be high-performance and have appropriate longevity.

Self-Healing Surfaces

There have been numerous coatings and fillers to fix scratches, holes and chips in glass, brick, concrete and wood for many years.

NanoMarkets believes that a new class of building surface is emerging that will be genuinely self-healing.  These surfaces will most likely be based on (1) embedded healing agents, (2) self-repairing “vascular” systems, (3) shape memory materials, (4) reversible polymers; especially (2) and (4).  Long lasting products of this kind potentially represent a genuinely disruptive technology; especially self-healing concrete.

Solar Panels and Smart Surfaces

Solar panels may become smart surfaces in two ways:  One strategy is to turn solar panels into true surfaces that are part of the building fabric in a truly integrated way. Another strategy that can be adopted is to give a solar panel additional intelligence such as by adding more functionality, of which the most common is self-cleaning capabilities.

n-tech believes that both of the product strategies mentioned here should be appealing to solar panel suppliers, who are always looking for ways to add value to their products.  In addition, as we see it, the solar panel market is always in need of cost-effective ways for increasing efficiency and obviously dust and dirt reduces this efficiency.  Therefore the basic business model for self-cleaning coatings in this space is a good one.