Glass Coating innovation lets more light into solar panels

By Hillary Hollis

The Razorback Reporter

A new glass coating that could improve solar technology has earned UA alumni more than $650,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy, according to a recent announcement.

Fayetteville-based WattGlass developed a coating that reduces the amount of light reflected by solar panels and allow more light to reach the solar modules which then convert energy into electricity, said Corey Thompson, chief executive officer.

The start-up technology company, founded by UA graduates, won a $679,413 grant that will enable WattGlass to begin working with solar module manufacturers to take the glass-coating technology to the market, Thompson said.

WattGlass’s technology makes glass easy to clean and highly transparent. It is applied to the surface of glass in the production stage, Thompson said.

It is also safer because it is water-based and does not use the solvents and acids contained in other glass coatings, Thompson said.

“The anti-reflective coating currently used is usually more expensive and uses hazardous materials,” he said.

WattGlass was awarded the grant through the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, whose mission is to make solar-powered electricity cost-competitive with other electrical energy sources by 2020, according to the website.

Thompson and his team are excited to be part of the path toward better solar energy, but that WattGlass’s anti-reflective coating technology has further potential uses, he said.

“I know that our technology can have a huge impact in the solar market, but I feel like our technology has a lot of other applications than solar energy from LED lights to eye glasses,” Thompson said. “I would like to see it applied across other industries or other markets.”

WattGlass was founded in 2014 and is located in the Arkansas Research and Technology Park, said Chris Branam, research communications writer and editor for University Relations.

“This shows the type of research that happens here that makes it from the lab bench to the market,” Branam said.

The SunShot grant allows WattGlass to go forward with a project to build solar panels with glass manufactured with their anti-reflective glass coating, Thompson said.

“It’s in our best interest as a company to make sure that we are working with leaders in the industry,” Thompson said.

WattGlass plans to work with three different solar module manufacturers to build solar panels, using glass produced with the WattGlass coating, Thompson said.

The panels will be installed in three different U.S. climates – temperate, desert and humidity / freeze – alongside panels built with standard anti-reflective coating to compare the performance, Thompson said.

“The idea is to test how the modules capture sunlight in three different climates across the U.S.,” he said.

The UofA is a likely to be the site of the temperate climate, Nevada or South California the desert climate and Massachusetts the humidity and freeze climate, Thompson said.

Plans have not been made to place any of the solar panels connected with the project on the UA campus, Branam said.

The comparison will take place over 14 months, Thompson said.

Thompson began developing the glass coating technology as his Ph.D. research project five years ago, after joining Min Zou’s research group, he said in an email.

“I’ve always been fascinated by technologies that make the jump from laboratory to industry,” Thompson said.

Because Thompson discovered the technology while he was a student, the patent will belong to the UofA, Branam said. The school will receive a portion of royalties and profits from the commercialization of the glass coating technology.

The patent is licensed exclusively to WattGlass by the UofA, so WattGlass has the license for its commercialization, Branam said.

Thompson’s interest in the way the behavior of materials can be changed by engineering the surface is what motivated him to join Min Zou’s group, he said.

Thompson and his lab mate Drew Fleming discovered the properties for the water-based glass coating while working with nanoparticles. At the time, the group was experimenting with ways to change how water interacted with surfaces, Thompson said.

“Investigating and tuning those optical properties became my Ph.D. dissertation, and Drew became our first hire at WattGlass,” Thompson said.

The technical team at WattGlass are all UA graduates, Branam said.

To support discoveries and innovations, the Research Technology Park provides office and laboratory space to start up technology companies and also helps them write grant proposals and seek out industry partners, Branam said.

The technology sector offers jobs to graduates and is growing in the state, Branam said.