Even at the right price, though, these materials will still have plenty to prove. One of the biggest concerns will be how long they hold up, Smith says. Materials' lifespans -- or durability -- and reliability are critical to calculating their depreciation and total cost over time. As Smith puts it, "If it lasts a year and you have to keep changing it, it might not be cost-efficient." LEED certification would go a long way toward winning credibility with architects and contractors, he added.
If these materials do prove cost efficient, durable and sustainable, Smith predicts big corporations will be their first commercial customers. After that, he thinks the materials also could find a big market in new condos and apartments. But he expects the earliest adopter will be Uncle Sam. If the government tries the technology on federal buildings and finds that it cuts utility bills and lasts a long time, it could choose to introduce it into the private sector with a tax credit or other incentives, Smith says.
Moving out of the labs
Before getting in with Uncle Sam, though, self-sustaining materials first need to get out of the lab. They're only in early development now, and He estimates the heating gel remains at least three to four years away from becoming a market-ready product, such as windows or insulation. Still, she thinks the technology has a good chance of getting licensed.
Making the hydrogel is actually a "pretty simple" process that doesn't require costly equipment, she said. "We imagine it will not be difficult to scale up, make the first commercial prototype and optimize it into real industrialized fabrication," she said. "We think it should be really promising and not taking very long."
She admits that challenges exist. Making a material that can control its temperature in a lab is a far cry from making the material work the same way on a building. "In the lab, at a small scale, you don't have to consider the outside environment very much," He said. "In the window of a building, you need to consider the sunlight, wind and other very harsh conditions out of the lab. We'll have to find ways to protect [these materials] and make them sturdy enough."
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