Glass is a ubiquitous and versatile material. We can use glass to keep our buildings warm or cool, to make fully recyclable containers to store food and drink in, to engineer lightweight structural materials, or to create the links that our telecommunications age rely upon.

Glass manufacturing is dominated by a handful of major companies, such as the Asahi Glass Company (AGC), Guardian, Nippon Sheet Glass (NSG) Group, O-I, PPG, and Saint-Gobain. The industry has been subject to the sort of consolidation and rebranding experienced in other sectors. The most significant acquisition in recent years was the purchase of Pilkington by NSG in 2006, while rebranding saw Glaverbel relaunched as AGC Flat Glass Europe in 2007.

These major companies enjoyed mixed fortunes in 2007: for example, while AGC’s sales in its flat glass division rose by only 6.2%, PPG Industries enjoyed 14% growth for its optical segment and 10% for its glazing and fibre glass segments. In particular, the shine was taken off the results of several companies in the flat glass sector after they became embroiled in EU enquiries into alleged price fixing practices.

<strong>Glass products</strong>
There are 4 key market sectors: hollow glass (mostly containers), flat glass, fibres, and special glass. Global data on the output of these sectors is hard to come by. The body that represents European manufacturers, the Comité Permanent des Industrie du Verre Européennes, estimates that 61% of production (by volume) in the EU is due to containers, 29% flat glass, 4% tableware, 3% special glass and 2% fibres. Glass manufacturing is a major source of employment, with over 210,000 people working in the glass industry in the EU.

<strong>Hollow glass</strong>
Glass bottles and jars are used widely in the food industry. Glass faces tough competition in this sector though, from plastics, paper products and metals. David Workman, Director General of the British Glass Manufacturers’ Confederation, commented, “It’s a very competitive market place. Plastics have made big headway into some of glass’s traditional markets, particularly in the food sector, but glass container production is still rising.” He explained that glass often wins out as it is perceived to be a superior material. This is borne out by the results of surveys conducted on behalf of the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI): 96% of wine and beer drinkers in the US and Europe said they preferred their drink to be packaged in glass bottles. Consumers believe that glass provides a truer taste, by protecting the purity and quality of the drink better. The GPI says that, “Glass provides a barrier to oxygen and moisture, protecting it longer and better than any other packaging material... it communicates a premium image, taste and quality.”

<strong>Flat glass</strong>
Flat glass is used in construction (approximately 70%), interior furnishing and decoration (20%) and the automotive and transportation industries (10%).
Up to 95% of flat glass is now made using the float process, which was developed in the 1950’s by Sir Alastair Pilkington and colleagues at Pilkington Brothers (curiously he was no relation of the firm’s founders). The float process involves pouring molten glass from a furnace onto a bath of molten tin and then drawing it off in a ribbon; the speed with which it is drawn off controls the thickness of the glass. This produces a material of uniform thickness, with a bright surface and free of any optical distortions. Previously such quality was only attainable if sheet glass was ground and polished. There are now around 260 float glass plants operating or planned around the world. Each one can produce up to 350-750 tonnes of glass per day, in widths of up to 3m. This is the equivalent of 6000 km of glass each year.

Production is dominated by 4 glass makers: AGC, Guardian, NSG Group, and Saint-Gobain. Together they account for 66% of global production. NSG Group specializes in this area. Since its purchase of Pilkington, almost 90% of the company’s sales comes from flat glass manufacture. In contrast only 50% of AGC’s revenues derive from flat glass and just 12% of Saint-Gobain’s.

These companies have had to cope with an EU Competition Commission fine of €486.9m, which was levied in November 2007 as a result of price fixing of flat glass. The Commission found that the companies “managed to raise or stabilise prices through a series of meetings and other illicit contacts.” A further ruling is awaited on automotive glass pricing.

The production of flat glass has been projected by the Freedonia Group to increase by 5.2% in 2008. A total of 48.3 million tonnes will be produced, 70% of which will be high-quality float glass. Unsurprisingly, it is predicted that the greatest growth in production will be seen in China and India, with China currently the biggest producer and consumer of glass. It produces over 43% of the world’s flat glass, although of the 123 plants in operation there, only 25 use high quality float lines.

In construction, 40-50% of flat glass is used in double or triple glazing units, and the rest in silvered, toughened, coated and laminated products. Refurbishment of buildings is believed to account for over 40% of glass consumption worldwide.

Technical innovation is creating more opportunities for glass, not just in showpiece office buildings like London’s 30 St Mary Axe (more commonly known as the Gherkin) but in the home as well. Self-cleaning glasses like Pilkington’s ActivTM and PPG’s SunCleanTM incorporate photocatalytic and hydrophilic coatings. The photocatalyst absorbs solar energy and works to break down organic matter, which is then rinsed off by rain.

Low-emissivity glass is produced by adding a coating of metallic oxide. This allows short-wave solar energy to pass through but reflects long-wave thermal energy back into the room, thus reducing heating costs. If solar control is required, electrochromic glass can used and this can be darkened by passing an electric current across the pane of glass.

Glass fibre is used in insulation products in a form known as glass wool. Glass fibre can also be produced in continuous filaments, which can be used in various forms such as chopped, woven or strands. These forms can be used as reinforcements for polymer resin to form lightweight composite materials, which are used in automotives, aircraft, construction, storage tanks and pipes. Glass fibre is a useful reinforcement because of its high surface area to weight ratio, with glass textiles used in the electronics industry in the production of printed circuit boards.

<strong>Special glass</strong>
Although the volume of special glass produced is comparatively small, the array of applications is impressive. One key market is in optical applications. This includes lenses used in glasses and optical instruments such as cameras, microscopes and telescopes, and the optical fibres used for telecommunications which are made of silica.

Special glasses are often needed in high-technology environments like satellites or laboratories. Lab glassware is usually made of borosilicate glass, which is more resistant to chemical corrosion and temperature change than the usual soda-lime glass. But special glasses are also used in the home, such as in glass ceramic cooking hobs, light bulbs, cathode ray tubes and liquid crystal display screens.

<strong>Future developments</strong>
Environmental pressures from consumers and governments should work in favour of glass. David Workman said, “Where we’ve been lobbying Government pretty hard is to get them to understand the value in environmental terms of products like double glazing and insulation and they are slowly coming round... We as an industry produce products that could have an immediate effect on energy reduction and CO2 emission, particularly if they were applied to the existing housing market.” Glass is also used in renewable energy generation such as in solar panels and solar thermal collectors (which use shaped mirrors to focus energy from the sun).

As to whether there may be further changes in the corporate landscape, David Workman thinks there is still scope for more consolidation in certain sectors of the industry, “There certainly could be consolidation in container glass, because it is dominated by two global operators, Saint-Gobain and O-I. So you could see the emergence of another global player. And there are certainly opportunities in Europe for more consolidation amongst the medium-sized players. Their customer base is becoming more and more global. If you look at those that are buying bottles and jars, they are companies like Nestlé and Diageo. These people have a global perspective.”

Things look bright for the glass industry. Growth in output looks set to continue, driven by technological developments of glass which make it usable in innovative ways by designers and architects. Usage will also be stimulated by the environmental benefits that some glass products can deliver. Its reputation amongst consumers as a high quality packaging material also seems assured, and as recycling rates increase it may also be seen as the most environmentally responsible choice.

<strong>Glass advantages</strong>
Another advantage of glass is its recyclability. Glass recycling is a highly efficient process. It is said that within 30 days of a glass container being put out for recycling, the glass can be recycled into a new container and be back on the supermarket shelf.

In some European countries (notably in Scandinavia), recycling rates are now up to 95%. In addition to reducing the amount of landfill and the input of raw materials, the GPI says that recycling extends the life of furnaces and reduces energy use by 2.5 % for every 10% of recycled material added. The energy required to melt the recycled glass (known as cullet) is much less than that needed to melt the raw materials of sand, soda ash and lime.

Reducing the environmental impact of packaging still further, some manufacturers are now reducing the amount of glass used in bottles. ‘Lightweighting’ cuts the amount of raw materials and energy needed to produce the item, without diminishing the strength of the product.

<strong>Flat glass innovations</strong>
The world’s first anti-bacterial glass was launched in late 2007 by AGC Flat Glass Europe. AntiBacterial GlassTM kills 99.9% of bacteria and stops the spread of fungi. Silver ions are diffused in the glass and work by interfering with the metabolism of bacteria. It is envisaged that the glass will be used in kitchens, bathrooms and healthcare facilities.

The automotive industry is also making use of more sophisticated products. Although laminated glass is now standard for windscreens, it is also becoming increasingly popular for side windows. Lamination (the inclusion of a polymer layer between layers of glass) provides a stronger material which also deadens sound.

Automotive glass fittings can also be coated outside to make them rain repellent and coated inside with a silver oxide layer to control glare and heat. The volume of glass used in cars has also increased, while a typical vehicle now comprises 50% more glass than 35 years ago. New designs are more likely to feature panoramic windscreens and larger sun-roofs.