Novel electrically-functionalized transparent surfaces are now an unmissable opportunity for glass manufacturers.

At a time when many places still haven’t yet got 5G mobile coverage, it might seem premature to be thinking about technologies relevant to 6G. But if one thing is certain about new tech, it’s that those who get ahead of the competition stand to make the biggest gains. Which is why glass manufacturers need to be thinking now about an up-and-coming innovation – transparent electronics.

New generation, new challenges

In the world of mobile communications, there’s an ever-expanding appetite for greater data rates and more extensive coverage. So with 5G now being rolled out, the mobile industry is already starting to consider the sixth generation of wireless technology (6G), due to be launched in 2030.

To achieve the terabyte-per-second levels of data transfer and microsecond latencies envisaged for 6G, it will use much higher (sub-mmWave) frequencies, corresponding to wavelengths below 1 mm. However, those wavelengths are very easily blocked by objects such as trees and buildings – what’s known in the trade as ‘path loss’.

One way of tackling the issue of path loss is to use more mobile phone repeater stations. But these masts don’t have much aesthetic appeal, and installing them at high densities isn’t very practical either. Fortunately, there’s an answer to this problem – one that’s also a very appealing commercial opportunity for glass manufacturers.

Developing electrically-functionalised transparent glass

The reason why windows could help address the challenge of path loss lies in our new-found ability to give glass electrical properties while retaining its transparency – so opening up the concept of using it as a tool for communication.

These electrical properties are achieved by coating the glass with a metal oxide, such as indium tin oxide (ITO) or aluminium zinc oxide (AZO), which are well-known for being electrically-conductive and transparent in thin layers. At TTP, we’ve been developing new sputtering methodology for producing these thin films on glass… and as a result, we’re now able to achieve conductivities that are on par with the best metallic conductors such as copper and gold.

Add in a few off-the-shelf transparent electrical components, and some ultra-fine wiring, and you have a sheet of glass that can have some very useful electrical properties, while remaining up to 95% transparent. Most significantly, you can manipulate the wavelength, polarization, and phase of electromagnetic radiation, giving you the ability to control where incident electromagnetic waves are reflected (by about 60° in either direction).

Adaptive control of electromagnetic signals

Windows are present everywhere in the built environment, and so represents an amazing application opportunity for our electrically-functionalised glass.

Using them, you can transform a regular window into an array of individually controllable elements, which can perform many of the functions of a regular circuit. But two functions hold particular promise:

  • Transmitting electromagnetic signals – what we call ‘optically transparent antennas’ (OTAs)
  • Controlling the direction in which electromagnetic signals are reflected – what we call ‘transparent intelligent reflective surfaces’ (TIRS).

What are the applications of transparent electronics?

As alluded to above, the most exciting application of this technology is making urban environments 6G-compliant without the need for large numbers of unsightly mobile repeater masts.

But there are also many other possibilities – such as improving indoor wireless signal coverage by using windows to reflect and direct signals, saving on energy bills by controlling the amount of sunlight entering a building, or improving device-to-satellite connectivity by incorporating antennas into LCD screens.

Benefits for glass companies

With the 6G transition coming in 2030, many glass manufacturers are already starting to take an interest in electrically-functionalised transparent surfaces. But the good news is that there’s still plenty of opportunity for your company to develop a portfolio of glass products for the next generation of wireless communications.

At TTP, we’ve got a wealth of in-house experience in designing electrically-functionalised transparent glass – including design, material sourcing, fabrication, and measurement. That puts us in an excellent position to be your R&D partner in this exciting field, helping you work out what’s possible and (ultimately) how it can be incorporated into your production lines.

Would you like to discuss the potential for new electrically-functionalised products in your portfolio of glass products? Give us a call today to talk to one of our experts.

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Deepak Nagarkoti
Advanced Technology Lead