Volume 50, Issue 3 - March 2015
Bigger isn’t always better, but size always matters. And while architects may be eyeing massive-sized lites, which promise transparent spans of uninterrupted views, another little product—and we do mean little—is slowly, but quite surely, making its way onto the architectural scene.
The glass technology live pavilion at glasstec 2014 featured an innovative art glass structure constructed with AGC’s thin glass product.
Super-thin glass—glass that’s approximately 1 mm thick, even less in some cases—is nothing new. It’s been a staple in the consumer electronics industry for years; just take a look at your smartphone or tablet. For those applications, strength and scratch-resistant properties are probably the biggest benefits. Those characteristics are also important in architectural glass, and over the past few years manufacturers have started looking at the market’s potential. These companies include both AGC and Corning Glass, among some others (editor’s note: Schott is also working on a super-thin product, but declined to comment for this article).
The question, though, is where can it viably be used?
“It’s difficult to say, because there’s no market for it,” says Dirk Schulte, vice president, business development for contract glazing firm APG International Inc. in Glassboro, N.J. “You have to create the market and create awareness.”
However, there are a lot of questions and uncertainty surrounding its use in architecture. The possibilities exist, but in what applications and at what cost?
Super-thin glass, which can be less than a millimeter in thickness, is incredibly flexible and strong.
The Bare Essentials
If you want to better understand the unique characteristics of thin glass, start by considering what it is not. Consider what it’s missing. For one, there’s no iron and soda lime, resulting in a pristine, clear aesthetic. It’s typically not tempered so there are no quench marks. Instead, its strength is the result of a chemical strengthening process. According to a report presented by APG during GlassCon Global in July 2014, during this process, “the glass takes in charged particles (ions) which are effectively ‘stuffed’ into the glass surface to increase the surface compression … [which is] much higher than that of the conventional thermal tempering process …”
A retractable-foldable canopy constructed with Corning’s Gorilla Glass was on display during glasstec 2014. APG International handled the installation, while SFL of Austria was the glass laminator.
Strength is its key advantage. Speaking of her company’s Gorilla Glass product, Christie McCarthy, director, product management, Emerging Innovations Group with Corning Glass in Corning, N.Y., adds that its damage-resistance aspect ties into that as well.
“At about half the thickness, it can triple the load to failure when compared to strengthened soda lime glass,” she says. “If scratched, it takes a lot more damage to cause that scratch to become something that can break. In other words, it can handle those scratches without causing catastrophic failure.”
Robert Metter is the director, business development for AGC Electronics America. His company has two thin products—Leoflex, which is for the building and industrial communities and Dragontrail, for displays and touchscreen applications. Leoflex, he explains, is derived from Dragontrail. He says the Leoflex chemically-strengthened product is five to seven times stronger than conventional tempered glass.
“You can replace a 4- to 6-mm thick panel with a .075- to 1.1-mm thick Leoflex panel,” he says, speaking of this benefit. “Next, you get much better light transmission due to the reduced thickness and lower iron over conventional glazing materials. Additionally, the chemical-strengthening process nearly eliminates any hazing due to environmental interaction. For example, sea spray near the ocean will not cause appreciable haze.”
While strength may be a desirable feature, these products do come with a certain limitation. At a time when “the bigger the better” is becoming a mantra for many on the architectural side, the available maximum size of super-thin glass poses somewhat of a disadvantage. Sizes available come in the neighborhood of about 4 by 5 feet, plus or minus a few inches. Metter, though, says this could change with larger chemical-strengthening tanks.
Searching for Answers
Small, But Mighty
What are the best applications for the glass, given its strength and size? Metter suggests a number of possibilities: transportation, security, marine, creative architecture (such as decorative) and elevator cabs.
McCarthy agrees and says her company has been involved in a number of similar applications.
“We sell Corning Gorilla Glass for interior architectural applications and currently have two system makers with whom we’re working, SnapCab and Elevecture [both manufacturers of elevator interiors systems],” she says. “We sell to them, and they sell the full system.”
She adds that on the canopy side they’ve done development work with SFL Technologies out of Austria and APG.
“SFL is laminating the Gorilla Glass for use in their engineered canopy design,” she explains of the concept display featured last fall at glasstec.
Because of the enhanced flexibility, super-thin glass has the potential for use in various cold-bending applications, such as skylights and other overhead glazing projects.
AGC also featured thin glass innovations at glasstec. Its Dragontrail X was used in the glass roofs for the players’ benches at the 2014 FIFA
World Cup in Brazil, which it displayed at the show. According to AGC, the glass is eight times stronger than typical soda-lime glass, even though it is very thin and light.
But strength is not the only consideration. Thin glass is also incredibly flexible. Depending on its use, that’s a quality that can be viewed as both a positive and a negative. Metter says, for example, the glass can be used for simple bends without a thermal forming process.
Schulte agrees, and says thin glass could be used in cold bending skylights, for example. He points out, though, that because of this flexibility, it isn’t necessarily something that could work in a conventional façade.
Other contract glaziers also have interest in these products and their potential use and development. Speaking of overhead applications, Jeff Haber, a partner with W&W Glass in Nanuet, N.Y., says, “Depending on their strength, ultra-thin glass panels instinctively would result in less weight, bulkiness, cost and sightlines for supporting framing systems as they would not need to support the heavy weight of thicker glasses, especially in overhead applications.”
It may seem easy to look at architecture and point out where the glass could be used, such as in canopies and elevator cabs. But what about taking thin glass and using it as an architectural component? That’s one possibility that Schulte thinks could be considered. He explains the European market is seeing greater use of triple-glazed insulating units, given the push to lower U-values; this is also making its way to the U.S. If the intermediate lite is replaced with a thin glass product, it could significantly reduce the added weight of a triple IGU compared to double glazing.
“The biggest mass application I see is its use as an integral member of triple-glazed insulating glass units,” he says. “We will see a lot of triple IGUs, where thin glass will be used as that intermediate glass layer in the future.”
McCarthy agrees there is potential for use on these applications, but the cost concern may still be an issue. She says they are open to these discussions, but there’s the question of whether it makes sense, particularly given the premium price.
Finding a Comfort Zone
Super-thin glass is one product that doesn’t come cheap. Metter says the thin glass can range anywhere from five to 10 times more than the cost of traditional float glass.
But before anyone buys it, they must first know about it, so simply generating awareness is a major hurdle. Schulte says groups, universities and others are using research efforts to find projects where it could be tried out. They would then create comparison charts to gain a real understanding of whether it makes sense to use.
“I think it will find its place in the market, though it is not a universal solution for each and every [application],” he says. “The industry will see marketable products and systems in the coming years where it will be implemented as an integral and cold bent member, but whether it’s sustainable or not is tough to say at the moment.”
He continues, “At the end of the day everyone thinks it’s great, but when it comes down to what we can do with it … they don’t know exactly. So let’s come up with a plan and create a list of applications [where it could work].”
New products, technologies and ideas can be exciting. Yet, they require a certain amount of trial-and-error before they can fully reach marketability for the masses, or at least more architectural niches. Schulte points to the retractable-foldable thin glass canopy featured at glasstec 2014 as an example. The concept design was outstanding, and showed a first glimpse of how thin glass can be used, yet it is not something implemented in the field.
“It’s an intention to think ahead and how the technology can be further implemented.
“There are a lot of unknowns in terms of its behavior in real applications right now,” he says. “It’s a great product and has future potential in the sophisticated, architectural market. But it’s still in a very early stage, and needs consideration and further development.”
Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.
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