Eye On Innovation
- Created: Tuesday, 01 April 2008
By Dr. Udo Ungeheuer
Chairman of the Board
Many people consider the printing press developed here in Mainz, Germany, near the headquarters of SCHOTT, the greatest invention of the last 1,000 years. Yet, many of the key technologies that made the development of the press possible were first developed for other, quite different applications. The screw press originally was developed to press grapes and olives for wine and olive oil. The new alloys that Gutenberg developed for moveable typeface were an outgrowth of weapons and armor metallurgy. The oil-based ink used by Gutenberg was developed for paintings, not books.
The printing press illustrates one of innovation’s most powerful and interesting characteristics — the fact that a particular technological innovation can often be used for many different applications, affect many different industries, and provide many different benefits. This characteristic is not limited to the printing press. One can cite many examples of innovations that, though originally designed to provide one benefit, have gone on to be used to provide quite different benefits.
At SCHOTT, we have seen firsthand how a single technological innovation, designed to solve one particular problem, can be used to solve various other problems in other industries. As an example, SCHOTT’s development of the PTR 70 receiver for Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants demonstrates how technological innovations that originally were designed to provide one benefit can end up providing solutions to a variety of applications.
The performance of solar receivers has a major effect on a solar thermal power plant’s efficiency, and thus on solar energy costs. If the receivers are able to absorb more sunlight, they heat up the fluid that flows within them faster, generating more electricity. In addition, the longer the receivers last, the less they need to be replaced, and the lower the operating costs. Our company has been able to use two technological innovations originally developed for architectural and electronic packaging applications — a powerful anti-reflective coating and glass-to-metal seal technology — to improve its solar receivers.
Anti-reflective architectural glass produces less glare, which has many aesthetic and functional benefits. Using this same coating on our solar receivers allows more light to pass through the outer glass tube, making it easier to bring the tube’s heat transfer fluid to the temperature needed to generate electricity. A technological innovation designed to solve an architectural problem now solves a solar energy problem.
One problem with solar receivers is that while their outer tubes are made of glass, their inner tubes are made of metal. These materials have different coefficients of expansion, which causes them to expand and contract at different rates. Due to these fluctuations in expansion rates and a difference of more than 400°C between day and night, there is a high potential for the seal to be broken, and for heat loss to take place, which reduces the efficiency of the receivers. Using innovations from SCHOTT’s Electronic Packaging division, which has extensive experience developing strong glass-to-metal seals that can withstand high thermal fluctuations, SCHOTT was able to develop a bellows system for its solar receivers. This system compensates for glass and metal’s different expansion rates, thus maintaining the receiver’s near perfect seal.
These are just two examples among many of how SCHOTT uses innovations developed for one kind of application for other, quite different applications. Our Zerodur® zero expansion glass-ceramic, originally designed to improve telescopes and other astronomical instruments, is now used for microlithography and laser applications. Coatings, which were developed for the glass DNA and protein microarray slides used in genomic and proteomic research, are now being adapted for pharmaceutical packaging. These coatings can help ensure that vaccines and other drugs maintain their effectiveness over time by preventing them from interacting with a glass package’s interior surfaces.
Sometimes the most important application for a specific innovation might not be right in front of you. Innovative companies don’t just look straight ahead when they consider which applications an innovation could be used for — they also use their peripheral vision. Just as Gutenberg assembled several technologies that were being used for other applications to construct his printing press, we must always remember that an innovation that solves one problem may also improve the way we live and work in other ways.
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