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Electrochromic window developed at NREL. Photo courtesy of Dennis Schroeder/NREL, NREL merlin id#24719

"Smart" windows

Now you see it, now you don't! Do you ever have one of those days when the Sun doesn't know whether it's coming or going, prompting you to keep opening and closing your blinds so you can read the words on your computer screen or stop your furniture from fading? It won't be long before we consign that particular problem to history, thanks to the arrival of "smart" windows (made from electrochromic glass and related technologies), which change from light to dark and back again, at the push of a button. They're relatively simple, wonderfully convenient (no more dirty drapes!) and have huge environmental benefits. How exactly do they work? Let's take a closer look!

Photo: Forget the curtains, forget the blinds! "Smart windows" change color at the flick of a switch, turning from light to dark (loosely speaking, almost transparent to almost opaque) and back again. Some are made of electrochromic (color-changing) glass; others are plastic films added on top of ordinary glass. Photo of a film-based smart window technology by Dennis Schroeder, US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory (DOE/NREL). NREL photo id #24719.

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  1. What is electrochromic glass?
  2. How does electrochromic glass work?
  3. Stick-on electrochromic films
  4. What's good and bad about electrochromic windows?
  5. How will smart windows improve in future?
  6. Do moving lithium ions sound a little bit familiar?
  7. Find out more

What are "smart" windows?

Glass is an amazing material and our buildings would be dark, dingy, cold, and damp without it. But it has its drawbacks too. It lets in light and heat even when you don't want it to. On a blinding summer's day, the more heat ("solar gain") that enters your building the more you'll need to use your air-conditioning—a horrible waste of energy that costs you money and harms the environment. That's why most of the windows in homes and offices are fitted with curtains or blinds. If you're into interior design and remodeling, you might think furnishings like this are neat and attractive—but in cold, practical, scientific terms they're a nuisance. Let's be honest about this: curtains and blinds are a technological kludge to make up for glass's big, built-in drawback: it's transparent (or translucent) even when you don't want it to be.

Since the early 20th century, people have got used to the idea of buildings that are increasingly automated. We have electric clothes washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and much more. So why not fit our homes with electric windows that can change from clear to dark automatically? Smart windows (also referred to by the names smart glass, switchable windows, and dynamic windows) do exactly that. The original ones were electrochromic, which means they change color (or, loosely speaking, switch from almost transparent to almost opaque) when you apply an electrical voltage across them. Other kinds of smart windows use other technologies, more like the LCD screens in a laptop. Typically smart windows might start off a blueish color and turn transparent when the electric current passes through them. With some technologies, that process takes a good few minutes; with others, it happens in less than a second.

Photo: Electrochromic glass wired to electric contacts and appearing transparent (clear). Photo: Electrochromic glass wired to electric contacts and appearing opaque (dark).
Photo: Electrochromic glass changes color under electric control: Left: Here it's transparent and looks much like ordinary glass; Right: Apply a small voltage and it turns almost opaque (it's actually blueish and very dark and does still let some light through). Photos by Warren Gretz courtesy of US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory (DOE/NREL).

How does classic electrochromic glass work?

Simulated animation showing how a smart electrochromic window changes from clear to opaque and back again.

There are quite a few different types of smart windows: some merely darken (like photochromic sunglasses, which turn darker in sunlight), some darken and become translucent, while others become mirror-like and opaque. Each type is powered by a different technology and I'm going to describe only one of them in detail here: the original electrochromic technology, discovered by Dr Satyen K. Deb in 1969, and based on the movement of lithium ions in transition metal oxides (such as tungsten oxide). [1] (Lithium, as you'll probably know, is best known as the chemical element inside rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.)

Ordinary windows are made from a single vertical pane of glass and double-glazed windows have two glass panes separated by an air gap to improve heat insulation and soundproofing (to keep the heat and noise on one side or the other). More sophisticated windows (using low-e heat-reflective glass) are coated with a thin layer of metallic chemicals so they keep your home warm in winter and cool in summer. Electrochromic windows work a little bit like this, only the metal-oxide coatings they use are much more sophisticated and deposited by processes similar to those used in the manufacture of integrated circuits (silicon computer chips).

The view through an electrochromic window in the light and dark, compared.

Photo: The view through an electrochromic window in its light and dark states (left and right). Photo by Dennis Schroeder courtesy of US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory (DOE/NREL).

What's it made from?

Although we often talk about "electrochromic glass," a window like this can be made of either glass or plastic (technically called the "substrate," or base material) coated with multiple thin layers by a process known as sputtering (a precise way of adding thin films of one material onto another). On its inside surface (facing into your home), the window has a double-sandwich of five ultra-thin layers: a separator in the middle, two electrodes (thin electrical contacts) on either side of the separator, and then two transparent electrical contact layers on either side of the electrodes.

Two people lift an electrochromic window unit.

Photo: Electrochromic windows can be quite hefty units. This one, under test at NREL, needs two people to lift it into position. Photo by Pat Corkery courtesy of US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory (DOE/NREL).

How does it work?

The basic working principle involves lithium ions (positively charged lithium atoms—with missing electrons) that migrate back and forth between the two electrodes through the separator. Normally, when the window is clear, the lithium ions reside in the innermost electrode (that's on the left in the diagram you can see here), which is made of something like lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2). When a small voltage is applied to the electrodes, the ions migrate through the separator to the outermost electrode (the one on the right in this diagram). When they "soak" into that layer (which is made of something like polycrystalline tungsten oxide, WO3), they make it reflect light, effectively turning it almost opaque. They remain there all by themselves until the voltage is reversed, causing them to move back so the window turns transparent once again. No power is needed to maintain electrochromic windows in their light or dark state—only to change them from one state to the other.

How a smart window works: Animated artwork showing how lithium ions move from one electrode to another, causing the window to reflect more light and become opaque.

Animation: How an electrochromic window works: Apply a voltage to the outer contacts (conductors) and lithium ions (shown here as blue circles) move from the innermost electrode to the outermost one (from left to right in this diagram). The window reflects more light and transmits less, causing it to appear almost opaque (dark). The layers are very thin coatings added to a weighty piece of glass or plastic known as the substrate (not shown here, for clarity).

A quick word about words

One quick note about terminology. The word "electrochromism" literally describes something that changes color when a voltage is applied or removed; in scientific books and papers, you'll find the two states described as "colored" and "bleached." But in practical technologies like electrochromic windows, what people are really interested in is something that does the same job as curtains and blinds. So, in everyday popular articles and marketing brochures, and even sometimes in scientific literature, the looser words you're more likely to read are "dark" and "light" or "opaque" and "clear," even if those words are a bit inaccurate. Bear in mind that smart window technologies are never completely opaque (in the colored/darkened state, they still transmit some light) nor completely clear (they may have a hazy or smoky appearance or a slight colored tint—and they don't look as clear as ordinary glass). [10]

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Other technologies

So much for lithium-ion, what other technologies are available? Here are a few of them:


Different types of electrochromic windows have different configurations, but most have several different layers. In one popular design, sold under the brand name of Halio, there are multiple surfaces. The electrochromic layer is sandwiched between two layers of PVB (polyvinyl butyral) polymer, with heat-toughened glass on either side of that. Then there's an argon insulating layer, a low-e coating, and, finally, a layer of interior glass. Electrochromic units can also be customized in various ways, with thicker outer layers for security or weatherproofing, different low-e coatings, more or less insulation, and so on. Some can be controlled automatically by smartphone apps or wired to roof-top pyranometers (sun sensors) so your windows darken automatically when the sunlight is strong enough.

Stick-on films

The smart windows we've looked at so far are generally installed as self-contained units: you fit an entire window with its specially coated glass at great expense. You can also get smart-window technology in a slightly cheaper form: manufacturers such as Sonte and Smart Tint® make thin, self-adhesive and stick-on film you can apply to your existing windows and switch on and off with simple smartphone apps.

Stick-on films aren't electrochromic: they use technology similar to an LCD display, which uses liquid crystals, under precise electronic control, to change how much light can get through. When the current is switched on, the crystals line up like opening blinds, allowing light to stream straight through; switched off, the crystals orient themselves randomly, scattering any light passing through in random directions, so making the windows turn almost opaque. The performance is impressive. According to Smart Tint, its films are 0.35mm thick, transmit about 98 percent of light when they're clear and switch in about a third of a second to their opaque state, when the light they let through drops to about a third; they've been tested to switch back and forth over 3 million times. [4]

How smart film works in smart windows: Animated GIF artwork showing how liquid crystals align to let light pass through

Animation: How a smart film works: The film contains liquid crystals (blue). When the current is switched off, the crystals point in random directions and scatter incoming light, turning the film opaque. When the current switches on, the crystals align like opening blinds, letting the light rays pass through in straight lines, so the film appears clear.

What's good and bad about smart windows?


Smart windows might sound like a gimmick, but they have a huge environmental benefit. In their darkened state, they block virtually all (about 98 percent of) the sunlight falling on them, so they can dramatically reduce the need for air-conditioning (both the huge cost of installing it and the day-to-day cost of running it). [5] (View Glass, one manufacturer, estimates electrochromic glass can cut peak energy use for cooling and lighting by around 20 percent. [6])

Since they're electrically operated, they can easily be controlled by a smart-home system or a sunlight sensor, whether there are people inside the building or not. According to scientists at the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), windows like this could save up to one eighth of the total energy used by buildings in the United States each year; they use only tiny amounts of electricity to switch from dark to light (100 windows use about as much energy as a single incandescent lamp) so make a huge net energy saving overall. [7]

Other benefits of smart windows include privacy at the flick of a switch (no more fumbling around with clumsy, dusty curtains and blinds), convenience (automatically darkening windows can save your upholstery and pictures from fading), and improved security (electrically operated curtains are notoriously unreliable).

Photo: Infrared thermal image showing the heat inside a car.

Photo: Hot stuff! This thermal (infrared) image shows how hot a car gets when you park it in direct sunlight: colors indicate temperatures with red and yellow hottest and blue coldest. Electrochromic glass fitted to a car might help to solve this problem. You'd simply flick a switch to darken the windows when you parked and the vehicle would be nice and cool when you came back! Photo courtesy of US Department of Energy (Flickr).


It's a given that glass fitted with electrodes and fancy metal coatings is going to be several times more expensive to install than ordinary glass: a single large smart window typically comes in at around $500–1000 dollars (about $500–1000 per square meter or $50–100 per square foot). [8] There are also questions about how durable the materials are, with current windows degrading in performance after only 10–20 years (a much shorter life than most homeowners would expect from traditional glazing). [9] Another drawback of current windows is the time they take to change from light to dark and back again. Some technologies can take several minutes (Halio quotes three minutes for its glass to fully darken from clear), though stick-on window films are much faster, changing from clear to opaque and back in less than a second.

How will smart windows improve in future?

Another possibility might be to combine electrochromic windows and solar cells so that instead of uselessly reflecting away sunlight, darkened smart windows could soak up that energy and store it for later. It's easy to imagine windows that capture some of the solar energy falling on them during the day and store it in batteries that can power lights inside your home at night, though, of course, a window can't be 100 percent transparent and working as a 100 percent efficient solar panel at the same time. The incoming energy is either transmitted through the glass or absorbed and stored, but not both. A window that doubled as a solar cell would likely involve compromise from both sides: it'd be a relatively dark window even when clear and much less efficient at capturing energy than a really good solar cell.

One thing we can be sure of is seeing much more of smart-window technology in future!

Do moving lithium ions sound a little bit familiar?

If you know a little bit about technology, the idea of an electronic sandwich that works by shuttling lithium ions back and forth between layers might just ring a bell: it's exactly the same principle we use in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (the ones in laptops, cellphones, and most electric cars)!

Lithium-ion cellphone battery.

Photo: A lithium-ion battery works in a very similar way to an electrochromic window.

In a battery, we use an electric current to move the lithium ions from one layer to another, so storing up energy; when the ions move back again, they release the stored energy, usually over a period of several hours, powering your laptop, cellphone, or other portable device. When it comes to batteries, we're looking to store as much energy as possible, for as long as possible, which means a lot of lithium ions and a very chunky device. On the other hand, when we're interested in making electrochromic windows, we're much more interested in optics. Which layer the lithium ions are in determines how much light passes through but, either way, the layers need to be extremely thin or the device won't function as a window at all. Relatively few ions move in electrochromic windows, compared to lithium-ion batteries: windows need to dark or lighten in seconds or minutes, not the three to four hours that a laptop battery takes to charge!

"The easiest way to understand an electrochromic device is to view it as a thin battery which optically shows its state of charge."

Carl Lampert, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory [11]

Further reading

The very strong similarity between lithium-ion batteries and electrochromic windows is no coincidence; if you check out Floyd Arntz et al's 1992 patent Methods for Manufacturing Solid State Ionic Devices, the very first sentence gives the game away, noting that their invention is a "device usable as an electrochromic window and/or as a rechargeable battery." According to these authors, broadly the same manufacturing methods can be used in both cases.

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  1.    Electrochromism was discovered in solid tungsten oxide (WO3) in 1969 by Dr Satyen K. Deb, as described in a paper published in Appl. Opt., Suppl. 3, 192, and later recalled in Reminiscences on the discovery of electrochromic phenomena in transition metal oxides, Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells Volume 39, Issues 2–4, December 1995, pp.191–201. There's some more brief history of the technology in Electrochromism: Fundamentals and Applications by Paul M. S. Monk, Roger J. Mortimer, and David R. Rosseinsky. John Wiley & Sons, 2008, p.67.
  2.    For more about viologens, see "Chapter 3: Electrochromic materials and devices based on viologens" in Electrochromic Materials and Devices by Roger J. Mortimer, David R. Rosseinsky, and Paul M. S. Monk (eds). John Wiley & Sons, 2015, p.57.
  3.    Nanostructures are discussed in "Chapter 9: Nanostructures in electrochromic materials" in Electrochromic Materials and Devices by Roger J. Mortimer, David R. Rosseinsky, and Paul M. S. Monk (eds). John Wiley & Sons, 2015, p.251.
  4.    Data from "Smart Tint Technical Data Sheet", SmartTint, (undated).
  5.    The figure of 98 percent comes from Smart Windows: Energy Efficiency with a View, NREL Newsroom, 2010. SmartTint's website quotes a figure of 95 percent for infrared blocking alone.
  6.    View quotes a 20 percent saving in lighting and HVAC electricity consumption and a 23 percent peak cooling energy reduction compared to high-performance low-e windows in [PDF] Energy benefits of View Dynamic Glass in workplaces, p.3.
  7.    Smart Windows: Energy Efficiency with a View, NREL Newsroom, 2010.
  8.    Prices vary widely, but I think my ballpark figures are still broadly OK. I got my $1000 per square meter from NREL, specifically Smart Windows: Energy Efficiency with a View by Joe Verrengia,, January 25, 2010. €1000 per square meter is quoted by G. Leftheriotis, P. Yianoulis, 3.10—Glazings and Coatings, In Comprehensive Renewable Energy, edited by Ali Sayigh, Elsevier Ltd, 2012.
  9.    My lifetime estimate is from Smart Windows: Energy Efficiency with a View by Joe Verrengia,, January 25, 2010. More recent online estimates seem to be in the range 20–30 years.
  10.    For example, an interesting early review titled "Looking into Windows" by Diane LaMacchia, from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory Review Spring 1992, Volume 17 Number 1, p.22, uses the terms clear, light, and transparent (on one hand) and opaque and dark (on the other) interchangeably, and makes no reference to color changes at all.
  11.    Quoted in "Looking into Windows" by Diane LaMacchia, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory Review 1992, Volume 17 Number 1, p.28.

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Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2011, 2023. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

Smart Tint is a registered trademark of Smart Tint, Inc.

Halio is a trademark of Kinestral Technologies, Inc.

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@misc{woodford_electrochromic, author = "Woodford, Chris", title = "Smart windows", publisher = "Explain that Stuff", year = "2011", url = "", urldate = "2023-10-04" }

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