Pioneers and trailblazers: 70 years of float glass innovation

Pioneers and trailblazers: 70 years of float glass innovation

Press Release
26 May 2022
Neil Syder, managing director at Pilkington United Kingdom Limited, part of the NSG Group, reflects on 70 years of the modern float glass process and looks forward to the next breakthroughs in glass manufacturing technologies.
This year marks 70 years since Sir Alastair Pilkington first began working on his revolutionary float glass process, which went on to become the universal method for manufacturing high quality flat glass used around the world.

The process is considered by many to be one of the most important innovations made in Great Britain since WWII , enabling the efficient mass production of perfectly flat and clear glass. Its invention was a pivotal moment for the glass industry, while enabling new opportunities in architecture and automotive design.

At the time, Sir Alastair was viewed by his contemporaries as a trailblazer in the field. But even he couldn’t have imagined the innovations that Pilkington UK would go on to make. 
From the development of exciting new coatings such as the original Pilkington K Glass™ to finding more sustainable ways to power the original manufacturing process Sir Alastair invented, we’ve continued to pioneer new technologies, manufacturing methods and products in the 70 years since his discovery.

Humble beginnings

In 1952, Sir Alastair began experimenting with floating glass on a liquid surface. Prior to the discovery, glass was made using either the ‘sheet’ process or the ‘plate’ process. Both techniques were time-consuming and costly, and neither were capable of producing the flawless sheet of glass coveted by the industry today.

Sir Alastair and his R&D team spent seven years and £28 million of investment, which equates to £150 million in today’s money, developing the technique and building the float process machine.

Sir Alastair produced hundreds of flawed pieces of glass, refining and perfecting the process, until finally, in 1959, the first sheet of saleable glass made entirely by the float process was produced.

The discovery was cutting-edge. It gave Sir Alastair a huge advantage over any competitor at the time, but with such great potential, the company patented and licenced out the technology for use globally – with 500 float glass lines now in operation all over the world.

Turbocharging innovation

In the years following Sir Alastair’s breakthrough, scientists and R&D professionals working at Pilkington UK have followed in his footsteps, building on his ideas to create new glass applications and meet industry challenges. 

We’ve created Pilkington Activ™ self-cleaning glass, with reacts with daylight to break down organic dirt that’s washed away by rain, and more recently, Pilkington SaniTise™ - glass with an antimicrobial coating which helps to breakdown enveloped viruses on the glass surface.

Glass breakthroughs have also aimed to create a more sustainable environment, for the climate and our co-inhabitants. Launched last year, Pilkington AviSafe™ features a special coating visible to birds, helping to prevent them from colliding with the windows and facades of buildings. 

We’ve even used our NSG TEC™ electrically conductive glass to wirelessly deliver power to devices via contact alone, creating the futuristic illusion that devices are freely ‘floating’ within an optically clear sheet of glass.

As well as all these incredible innovations in glass, Sir Alastair’s discovery has also made possible some amazing architectural applications. The Palm Tower in Dubai is a new, enormous tower clad entirely in solar control coated glass to help control extreme temperatures - produced by Pilkington UK in St Helens.

A more sustainable future

While the method used to make glass is at its core still the one invented by Sir Alastair seven decades ago, we haven’t stopped developing and improving the process.

Last year, we successfully manufactured architectural glass using hydrogen instead of natural gas at our float glass furnace in St Helens, the very place where Sir Alastair made his ground-breaking discovery. The world-first trial was a key step towards decarbonising our operations and demonstrated that float glass could be manufactured using an alternative, more sustainable fuel source, without impacting the high quality and reliable production levels that made the process famous. 

We’re also working with St Helens Borough Council to plan a district heat network which would harness waste heat produced by the float glass manufacturing process at our site to redistribute to buildings in St Helens as low carbon heating.

By taking the foundation Sir Alastair created for us 70 years ago, we’ve built a future for glass that no one would have imagined then. Instead of standing still and relying on the industry-leading process he developed, we continued to innovate. We pushed the boundaries to find better ways of doing things and new ways to use glass.

As the UN International Year of Glass begins, coinciding with the anniversary of float glass, we look to the past, as well as the future to inform the discoveries that are yet to be made in the industry.

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