When it comes to cool inventions, university research centers tend to be on par with Silicon Valley. A wide variety of different experimental inventions come out of college campuses, including a good amount that are made completely by accident. Somewhere between all of the wearable touchpads and new solutions for virtual reality sickness, there are researches who devote their time to enhancing technology that we already have and use every day. In that vein, researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering within the University of Texas at Austin, along with some help from around the world, have managed to bring out an iteration on an existing technology that is more efficient, cheaper, easier to use, and easier to manufacture than current solutions.
Led by the Cokcrell School's own Delia Milliron, the discovery was made by a team consisting of local elements and researchers from labs in the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, CNRS in France, and Ikerbasque in Spain. The team managed to create a new kind of smart glass, a transparent and flexible electrochromic substrate made of amorphous material, capable of changing its opacity and tint when an electric current passes through it. In order to create an amorphous substrate, obviously, an existing specimen had to be analyzed so that it could be imitated. This was reportedly a challenge for the team, one which they overcame with a combination of traditional measurement techniques and more unconventional tactics to eventually come across the breakthrough that they made. The manufacturing process, however, is what makes the team's substrate special.
Traditionally, these smart glass substrates are made using a volatile process involving very high temperatures. The resulting amorphous substrates, surprisingly, are actually less flexible, a bit thicker, and less energy efficient than what the team produced. Their process involves using low temperatures to chemically condense niobium oxide. The process results in a chaotic arrangement of atoms, but can be controlled to produce the kind of substrate that the team came up with. It is cheaper to produce, more energy efficient, and more flexible than what has been used up until now, which should allow a wider range of applications and bring down the cost of things made with the substrate.