Zhiqiang Fang/Hongli Zhu from University of Maryland, College Park

During one of my first experiences collaborating with a lighting designer, a fellow architect suggested that we use transparent glass to make a glowing canopy structure. The lighting expert smirked and informed him that transparent materials don't hold light, but allow it to pass through unimpeded.

A group of researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park, the South China University of Technology, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have developed a new material that defies this rule, as the material is simultaneously transparent and light-scattering. The material is essentially a kind of paper, developed from wood fiber with a nanoporous structure that delivers an ultrahigh 96 percent transparency. Remarkably, the paper also has a high optical haze, which is the ability to absorb transmitted illumination via light-scattering.

The scientists have already found the perfect application for the paper in solar cells, which benefit from high transparency as well as high optical haze. Typically, manufacturers have to make trade-offs with available materials, gaining light transmission but losing absorption or vice versa. However, the new material has already demonstrated a 10 percent boost in efficiency, according to the collaborating research team.

The wood fiber material is not only cheaper than conventional polymer substrates, but also more environmentally responsible. Eventually, architects may be able to specify light-diffusing window films that don't obstruct views, or maybe even transparent canopies that glow when lit.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.