Local Inventor Makes "Smart" Windows
by Dennis Domrzalski
Played over again, the monotone, unenthusiastic voice seemed worthy of derision. After all, the world is full of inventors and basement tinkerers who have perfected or who are on the verge of perfecting some incredible, energy-saving device that will save the trees, put the oil companies out of business and make the world -- even New York City -- a happy, pleasant place to live.
But there was something about this particular voice that was intriguing. It lacked the bombast of a frantic sales pitch. The claims about energy savings were stated matter-of-factly and without apology. So was the claim that his invention has been hailed as one of the 100 greatest inventions of the 20th century. The claim of having an even better energy-saving product was tinged with an understated confidence.
So you wonder, is it possible someone has invented something that has saved that much energy?
Could that someone be right here in Albuquerque?
Could the claims about future energy-saving products be true?
Day Chahroudi, 57 (who declined to be photographed for this story), a soft-spoken, unassuming, but opinionated inventor/chemist/scientist has had what millions of people dream about in life: a breakthrough invention that does something worthwhile and that has made millions, if not billions, of dollars. And now, this inventor who toils away in a small laboratory and self-built factory in the north I-25 industrial corridor, says he has perfected another energy-saving product and that he is on the verge of revolutionizing how buildings are built. He says he has developed a product that will let buildings sort of heat themselves with sunlight.
Chahroudi's first breakthrough came in the early and mid-1970s when he and others at Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped invent something called Low-e, or Low-emissivity, an invisible glazing applied to windows that lets sunlight into, but keeps the heat of the sun's rays out of buildings. It was in the early and mid-1980s that Low-e took off, and now, by conservative estimates of glass industry experts, 50 to 60 percent of new, double-pane widows are coated with the stuff. A typical Low-e window has an insulation rating of R-2.5 to R-3. The R-value is a measure of how fast heat is lost through a substance. A typical house wall has an R-value of 10, while an ordinary, single-pane glass window has an R-value of 1. Fiberglass insulation sold for use in attics has an R-value of 19.
He hopes his second breakthrough will be Cloud Gel, a water-soluble polymer that is transparent when cool and that turns white when warmed. Sandwiched between two sheets of plastic or between two panes of glass, Cloud Gel has the potential, Chahroudi said, of saving so much energy that it would make the oil companies sick. The theory behind Cloud Gel is this: When a building is cool inside, say in the winter, its Cloud Gel-coated windows remain transparent in order to let in sunlight and heat. But when the building is sufficiently warmed, the windows turn white in order to reflect sunlight and to prevent more heat from entering the building. And how does Cloud Gel know when to turn white and stop letting heat in? The exact temperature when the substance turns white can be set during the manufacturing process when Cloud Gel, a gloppy, honey-like liquid, is being made.
Cloud Gel is not a joke. It really exists. In fact, the national science media have been writing periodically about Cloud Gel since the mid-1980s. Chahroudi has been the subject of articles in Popular Science magazine as well as The New York Times.
But despite its potential and despite the promising write-ups about it over the years, Cloud Gel has yet to take off. And there is a chance, one glass industry official says, that other technologies that do what Cloud Gel does will beat Chahroudi to the marketplace.
But Chahroudi, who has lived in Albuquerque on and off since 1969, is undeterred. He said he has perfected Cloud Gel so that it will last 40 to 50 years, and that all he needs now are additional investors to convince the "10 to 12 multinational glass companies" they should be making Cloud Gel under license and putting it on windows.
"We solved all of the major technical problems a year and a half ago, and we are now mopping up the little details," Chahroudi said recently. "We have requests for samples from countries all over the world. Two companies are in Japan, one is in Germany, so we are ready for a big marketing push."
Chahroudi said that Suntek's fundraising efforts were hurt three years ago when his brother, Roy, left the company. "[Roy] was the president and fundraiser, and I am a scientist. I have taken over the fundraising since he left, and I have only been able to raise half the funds that he could," Chahroudi said. "The reason he left is that it is very high stress working in a company like Suntek. We almost never have a month's operating expenses in the bank, and sometimes we don't get paid and sometimes it is very difficult for people with families."
Low-eIt was in the early 1970s when he was working at Steve Baer's Zomeworks in Corrales that Chahroudi got the idea for Low-e and for Cloud Gel. He had left Lawrence-Livermore labs in Berkeley in 1969 to come to New Mexico. Dissatisfied with solar home designs of the era, he wanted something that was more than just a passive solar collector. So he began working with chemicals and eventually developed Low-e and initial batches of Cloud Gel. Chahroudi said he saw the two materials working in tandem to insulate buildings. Both would transmit heat from the sun's rays into a building. Low-e, when used in reverse application as a heat barrier, would work to keep the heat in, while Cloud Gel would work to keep a building from overheating.
This "Low-emissivity" coating blocks the rays of sunlight that carry most of the heat. It can also be applied so that it blocks the escape of heat from a building. The technology is simple to those who know about this stuff: Extremely thin layers of silver or metal oxide are used to form what amount to mirrors that reflect long-wave infrared energy. It is the long-wave infrared energy that carries most of the heat from the sun. At the same time it is reflecting back the long-wave infrared energy, the Low-e lets in the rays from the sun that carry most of its light. Chahroudi said he formed Southwall Corporation in 1979 to produce Low-e. The company went public for $60 million in 1987. Chahroudi said he made $3 million to $4 million on the deal. He said he has pumped all that money into developing Cloud Gel.
Chahroudi could have been a billionaire. But he said his patent protection for Low-e was weak and other companies were able to manufacture it. Now, all of the major glass companies make their own Low-e, Chahroudi said.
Cloud GelChahroudi is hoping that he will have the same success with Cloud Gel that he had with Low-e. The Cloud Gel is different, though. It is a water-soluble polymer that will turn from clear to cloudy when heated up. How does it work?
When the Cloud Gel is cool, the polymers are like long strands of spaghetti. But the strands are much smaller in diameter than are wavelengths of solar energy. Thus, the sun passes right through them. But when heated, the polymer strands curl up into blobs that have a diameter greater than those of solar wavelengths. So when they're in their glommed up or warm condition, the polymers catch the sunlight and reflect up to 80 percent of it back. When used with Low-e, Cloud Gel will be able to prevent a house from overheating, and Low-e could be used to prevent the heat inside the house from escaping.
So why isn't the world beating down Chahroudi's door to buy Cloud Gel?
"It wasn't until a year ago that we worked out all of the bugs in the Cloud Gel in glass," Chahroudi said. There's another reason, too: Chahroudi wants to take a different route with Cloud Gel than he did with Low-e. He doesn't want to manufacture it and then have to sell it to glass companies. He wants to license the product and the manufacturing process to the glass companies. That way he's not stuck making it.
And it always take time to convince the big multinationals that doing something good for the environment is a worthwhile endeavor.
"We don't talk to them about the environment because they think we're sissies," Chahroudi said. "The only real motivations that are trustworthy in the big-money world are greed and fear. And so if we reveal our real motivations [to save the environment] the multinationals would say we are unpredictable, untrustworthy loose cannons. And so we just try to feed them product with very, very high profit margins and that have a big environmental impact. And we don't talk about environmentalism. We just talk about the money they can make."
But it is environmentalism that is behind Cloud Gel and Low-e. Chahroudi sees them being used together to make buildings that have breathing, living "skins" instead of walls.
The Weather PanelIf all goes well for Chahroudi and Suntek, Cloud Gel and Low-e will come together in a product that Chahroudi has spent more than 20 years developing: the weather panel.
About one-inch thick, the panel combines glass, Cloud Gel, Low-e and water in a self-contained, portable solar water heater and heat storage unit. The idea is that the Cloud Gel lets in sun to heat the water that is sealed in the glass. Once the water is heated to the proper, pre-set temperature, the Cloud Gel turns white. Then the Low-e, which is sandwiched between the Cloud Gel and the water, takes over and prevents the water from losing its heat to the outside. Instead, the heat is transferred into a building. Chahroudi foresees the day when roofs in northern climates are made, not out of boards and shingles, but out of scores of his weather panels linked together. The heat stored in the thin layers of water would be released into the house during the night. The Weather Panel has an R-10 insulation value, Chahroudi said.
CompetitionAlthough Chahroudi says that Cloud Gel is the best thing that will ever happen to windows, he still hasn't sold any of the stuff commercially. And there are other technologies that can cloud up windows to make them reflect back the sun. One technology is called electrochromics. These are sheets of glass or windows that are coated with materials that respond to electric current and cloud up when the juice is turned on. Some car manufacturers are already using electrochromics in rear-view mirrors.
But Chahroudi scoffs at electrochromics. "Their main use is not energy related, but for privacy, and it costs 10 times as much," he said. "And instead of turning white like Cloud Gel, they turn dark. They absorb sunlight to prevent transmission, as opposed to Cloud Gel, which reflects. The fact is that $350 million has gone into developing electrochromics as opposed to $10 million for Cloud Gel, and the only thing electrochromics is used for are for rear-view mirrors in cars."
Work and Burned PapersIn the past 15 or so years, Chahroudi has made more than 2,000 polymers in his small laboratory at 6817A Academy Parkway East. He has made hundreds of glues and has put together thousands of small, square pieces of glass sandwiched over Cloud Gel. Each combination of polymer and glue has been subjected to various stress and heat tests. The early versions of Cloud Gel have only a 10-year life span, Chahroudi said. That was too short, and so new formulas had to be developed and tested. In one corner of the lab is a small, woodburning stove. When asked jokingly about that high-tech device, Chahroudi explained that he burns some of his research papers in the stove.
"As I mentioned," he said in explaining why he burns papers, "with Low-e we prevented the sale of several billion dollars worth of oil. I lost the Low-e through bad patents and also industrial espionage. We know the oil companies are watching us very closely. The world of the oil companies and the multinationals, that's a lot like the world of street gangs in the inner city -- desperate people, empty people, lonely people who have no inner life and who are just grabbing for money and power and throwing each other out of the way."
"The foundation of our activity is seeing that the world is being destroyed very, very rapidly. The natural world and the people will all be kind of out in orbit, isolated from their mother the earth. I think that with Cloud Gel we can create some kind of social change," Chahroudi said, explaining that people have learned to treat the environment as an enemy and as something that needs to be kept at bay with thick walls and roofs. But with Cloud Gel, he said, people will learn to treat the elements and the environment as partners.
Day Chahroudi can be reached at Suntek's offices at 345-4115