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Innovations in Window Efficiencies

Professor Eric Schiff works to stem energy loss from older, single-pane windows

Nov 23, 2015 | Article by: Kathleen Haley


Eric Schiff

Physics Professor Eric Schiff wants to see more innovative ways to retrofit windows that would make them more efficient, while still being inexpensive and attractive.

As a program director at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), Schiff is able to lead an effort to make that happen.

Schiff, who is currently on assignment from the College of Arts and Sciences, has created a program through ARPA-E that is providing up to $30 million in research funding focused on improving the energy efficiency of commercial and residential buildings.

$10 billion in savings

The Single-pane Highly Insulating Efficient Lucid Designs (SHIELD) program is seeking innovative ideas for new materials that are both transparent and insulating to retrofit existing single-pane windows.

“If it is completely successful, we estimate a savings to U.S. building owners of about $10 billion per year,” Schiff says. “That would be a great return on the investment in the research and in the products that emerge from it.”

As the program director for the SHIELD program, Schiff will be actively managing the projects once they are selected.

“The germ of the idea for SHIELD was my own office in the Physics Building at Syracuse,” Schiff says. The building still has single-pane windows, which use a lot more heating energy in winter than modern, double-pane windows.

“Beverly Reynolds, an undergraduate researcher, measured the heat loss from one of our lab windows in the winter of 2013; it wasn’t pretty,” says Schiff, who previously served as chair of the physics department.

Energy retrofits

Schiff, whose Syracuse research group studies electron and hole transport in semiconductors and solar cell device physics, arrived at ARPA-E for a three-year assignment about 18 months ago and built upon that idea.

“My colleague Dan Matuszak and I found that the single-pane windows in the U.S. still use more heating energy than all of the more advanced windows bundled together,” Schiff says. “So the energy savings to the U.S. would be quite substantial if we could find a good way to retrofit single-pane windows to make them more efficient.”

Commercial and residential building heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems accounted for 14 percent of the nation’s total energy consumption in 2013, and about a quarter of that energy is needed just to offset the heat leaking through windows, according to ARPA-E.

Many buildings with existing single-pane windows cannot support the weight, size or appearance of more efficient, but costly double pane replacement windows. However, retrofitting single-pane windows can reduce heat-loss and save roughly the amount of electricity needed to power 32 million U.S. homes each year.


“At ARPA-E, we invest in technology options in order to create a more sustainable American energy future,” says ARPA-E Director Ellen D. Williams. “The ARPA-E SHIELD program will help reduce our nation’s energy consumption by developing innovative materials to insulate existing windows in cases where window replacement isn’t feasible.”

Practical and inexpensive

Any innovations would have to be practical, attractive and inexpensive to building owners.

“The ‘low emissivity’ coatings and films that are already available are a great start. To go beyond these will require innovative materials science and engineering,” Schiff says.

For example, layers of a material that would be very insulating and clear and could be sprayed on to an existing window would be helpful. These ideas, with names like “nanofoams” and “metamaterials,” are already being explored.

“The first big challenge for SHIELD is to transform these ideas into a reality,” Schiff says. “A second challenge is to make the technologies very attractive to building owners.”

To do that, retrofits must do more than save energy. “If the same product that improved energy efficiency also improved the soundproofing of the window, I think it would fly off the shelves of your local home improvement store,” he says.

50 percent reduction

The SHIELD program’s goal is to reduce single-pane windows heat loss by 50 percent.

“It’s very gratifying to see an energy idea you’ve championed turn into a significant research program like SHIELD,” Schiff says. “That’s the opportunity that lures a truly outstanding group of people to work at the agency.”

Schiff finds great satisfaction in the work.

“It’s stimulating, and indeed just plain fun, to work with the ARPA-E and Department of Energy colleagues and with the people who actually do the research; we visit every research project on site at least twice a year,” Schiff says. “We are all working toward shared goals, which are to make energy more accessible, more secure and more sustainable.”


Contact Information

Rob Enslin