Phil Brown, European regulatory marketing manager at Pilkington United Kingdom Limited, part of the NSG Group, reflects on the glass and glazing sector’s sustainable transformation in the face of climate change.
It’s difficult to think of any other time in history where climate change has been such a dominant influence in everyday life. Recent research from Cardiff University revealed that UK climate anxiety is at an all-time high*.
Pressure is mounting for change, fast. And there are some very reassuring signs that decarbonisation is being taken seriously – from pace gathering behind the take up of electric vehicles, to very novel technological breakthroughs, like a Scottish venue being powered by the body heat of clubgoers.
While it’s very much needed, we can’t shy away from the fact that sustainable transformation of the glass and glazing industry is no mean feat. Together with our energy intensive industry cousins in steel and ceramics, we have a long road ahead to decarbonisation.
So, what are we doing to accelerate that journey?
Fittingly, a chapter of decarbonisation in the industry starts where the story all began – in Merseyside.
The world’s first trial of hydrogen fuelling a glass furnace has taken place almost 70 years on from when the modern float glass process launched at Pilkington UK in St Helens.
It sparks a journey where the natural gas fossil fuel, normally used in the manufacturing process, could be completely replaced with hydrogen – helping us to significantly cut carbon emissions and take a major step towards reaching net zero.
Working alongside HyNet North West, a regional consortium of energy industry organisations and academia, we demonstrated in a full-scale production trial over several weeks
that it is possible to use hydrogen to safely and effectively fire a float glass plant.
And most recently, we’ve successfully run the glass furnace on a blend of hydrogen and natural gas, which will be a crucial intermediate step as the national infrastructure for hydrogen is implemented with time.
There’s a lot of work to be done, but the initial results are really promising. As an energy intensive sector and a major part of wider supply chains, early milestones like this are encouraging for the whole economy’s decarbonisation.
While science and industry unpick the challenges of powering glass furnaces with hydrogen, the industry will contribute to decarbonisation like it always has.
The supply of energy efficient glazing has roots in saving homeowners money on their energy bills. But now it serves another purpose of helping to avert a climate catastrophe.
Indeed, modern glazing specifications can retain heat in cooler months while reflecting heat in the summer – improving energy performance while not compromising on the aesthetical appeal or light transmission that windows and facades can offer. As manufacturers continue to innovate with even higher performing products, glass will continue to play an important role in reducing the operational carbon performance of buildings.
Such products will become increasingly important, with our latest research telling us that demand for specialist glass is rising thanks to climate change concerns and more ambitious building regulations for energy conservation.
And while we act with a collective concern over the climate crisis to improve our carbon position, it will grow as a commercial necessity to supply glass that’s made as sustainably as possible.
Glass that enables buildings to improve their energy performance, which is manufactured in a zero or ultra-low emission plant, will be a major game changer for the whole economy. It’s still a long road yet to achieving this picture, but encouraging momentum is beginning to build towards this goal.