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The chemical behind the self-cleaning windows that let you do less housework

Because nobody likes housework.

Ok, some people like housework, but I think we can all agree that even those obsessive cleaners amongst us deserve a break every once in a while.

That’s where titanium dioxide comes in. It turns out that if you use a titanium dioxide-based coating onto your windows they will literally clean themselves.

Self-cleaning windows. That sounds like something from ‘Back to the Future’ right? Like something we’ll have around the time we get jetpacks and hoverboards.  Well in case you hadn’t noticed, we already have all of that. We’re now so far into the future that Marty McFly himself would be shocked.

Placed in that context, self-cleaning windows really don’t seem that unbelievable and that is good, because they really shouldn’t be. 2016 is the future and self-cleaning windows are a part of it. 

How does it work?

Basically, a very thin layer of a formula containing titanium dioxide is applied onto the window. It will then break down all the dirt and other things you might be scraping off your windows on a regular basis, and turn it into carbon dioxide and water, which will then wash off in the rain and leave your windows crystal clear.

No, but how does it really work?

Oh, you mean what’s the science behind it? Ok, so titanium dioxide is something called a photocatalyst. Catalyst as starting something, photo as in something to do with light. At the molecular level, titanium dioxide absorbs sunlight and creates molecules with a missing electron that are highly reactive with other chemicals. These molecules want to get another electron and in order to do so, they break down molecules next to them that have electrons available. On your window, these electrons come from organic materials like dirt or smog residue, which are broken down into harmless CO2 and water molecules. These then easily wash off your window when it rains.

Clearly, windows have not yet learned to clean themselves. But until that day comes, science can help us save on elbow grease. 

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