At PPG Industries' research center in Harmar -- a place where floor-to-ceiling glass windows and skylights allow natural light to flood the lobby, corridors and employee cafeteria -- researchers are working to develop materials for use in new lighting systems that have the potential to slash electricity use in the U.S.
The study of glass, coatings and light come together at the company's Glass Business and Discovery Center -- erected in the 1950s, updated with a gleaming exterior and addition in 1989, but now a prime location for research that could change the commercial buildings of the 21st century.
Inside, there's little hint that PPG has been on a mission to shed some traditional units, including glass, in favor of growing its fast-expanding coatings portfolio and specialty products like Transitions eye lenses.
Perhaps that's because the engineers and scientists here are immersed in technology aimed at improving PPG's commercial and residential glass products, and much of what they do involves coatings that boost glass performance.
"We are a little more focused on the coatings side of glass. That's no secret," said Richard Beuke, vice president, flat glass, for the Downtown-based corporation that got its start making plate glass 130 years ago at a site on the Allegheny River in Creighton, East Deer.
"What allows glass to perform are the coatings you put on it," Mr. Beuke said. "The most sophisticated piece of glass has 17 layers of coatings."
To be sure, the coatings applied to glass aren't quite the paints and sealants PPG makes for homes, buildings, automobiles and airplanes. These coatings are ultrathin, microscopic layers of metal, such as silver, that are bonded to glass in a vacuum chamber. While they appear transparent, such coatings are strong enough to either block or speed up the passage of portions of the light spectrum.
"The bottom line is, we're developing material to allow the management of light through glass," said Mehran Arbab, director, glass science and technology, and manager of the Harmar site.
PPG's glass coatings can be found in the side windows on Boeing's Dreamliner aircraft as well as in solar glass used in commercial structures and even glass used in appliance parts.
Among the ongoing recent projects at the Harmar center is one that will advance the use of glass coatings in energy-efficient lighting systems.
In 2010, PPG received a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a thin, transparent glass material that could conduct an electric current and produce light in the form of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs).
That funding was one of $37 million in grants awarded to spur commercialization and mass production of solid-state lighting systems, including OLEDs and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). According to energy department estimates, widespread installation of solid-state lighting by 2030 could slash electricity use in the U.S. by one-third.
Besides increasing energy efficiency compared with traditional incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, OLEDs have the potential to emit four times as much light per watt as incandescent bulbs, PPG said. Because they are composed of organic materials and reduce carbon emissions, OLEDs also have an environmental advantage.
Other recipients of DOE grants for the solid-state lighting initiative included major lighting producers General Electric, Philips Lumileds Lighting, and Osram Sylvania Products. PPG has said it has an agreement with one of those companies to develop and produce the technology, but officials declined to disclose the partner.
Though the energy department funded PPG's research for two years, the company has applied for more money from the federal agency and meantime is supporting the project through internal funds.
"The DOE money would speed things up; we could put more people on it," Mr. Beuke said. A team of six worked on the project under the DOE grant.
About 100 employees at Harmar are devoted to research and development, and another 180 work in marketing, customer service and other support roles.
PPG's flat glass production facilities include plants in Carlisle, Pa.; Wichita Falls, Texas; Mt. Zion, Ill.; and Fresno, Calif. Glass coatings are also produced at a plant in Salem, Ore.
The company's chance of winning increased funding for lighting research could get a boost from its recent recognition by the DOE for "significant achievements" in advancing the commercial potential of OLED systems. Officials from the Harmar site picked up the award at a solid state lighting industry event in California.
The research center already receives several million dollars a year in funding from the DOE and the U.S. Department of Defense for other glass-related projects, Mr. Arbab said.
PPG's long-term goal for the OLEDs is to target the technology for use in large commercial installations, said Dennis O'Shaughnessy, associate director, glass research and technology. Right now, he said, such lighting is primarily being used in niche markets such as desk lamps and chandeliers. "We want large pieces in large buildings."
As Mr. Beuke put it, "Our vision is to be the guy who takes out a ceiling tile and drops in a piece of glass" to provide interior light.
The corporation for years was known as Pittsburgh Plate Glass, but glass now comprises only 7 percent of overall global sales that totaled $15.2 billion in 2012. Besides flat glass products, the segment also includes fiber glass used in electronic circuit boards, thermoplastics and other specialty materials. Global glass operations employed about 3,200 last year.
Coatings, meanwhile, grew to 74 percent of PPG's revenues and are poised to capture a bigger share of sales since the April 1 acquisition of Dutch paint producer AkzoNobel's North American architectural coatings business for $1.1 billion -- the second-largest purchase in PPG's history.
The company also continues to scoop up smaller coatings concerns such as Deft Inc., a California company that makes aerospace primers and topcoats and other paint products; and Spraylat, a New York-based producer of industrial coatings.
In another move that helped to seal its strategy to divest old-line businesses, PPG in January sold off its commodity chemicals unit to Georgia Gulf Corp. to create Axiall Corp.
"We have successfully transformed PPG from a diversified industrial supplier to a focused coatings and specialty products company," chairman Charles Bunch told shareholders earlier this month at the company's annual meeting.
Despite some earnings dips during the recession, PPG's shares have enjoyed a strong ride on Wall Street: A year ago the stock was at $105.66 per share and it closed Friday at $144.93.
Analysts expect earnings per share of $7.79 for 2013, up from $6.06 last year.
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.