Photochromic lenses are optical lenses that darken on exposure to specific types of light of sufficient intensity, most commonly ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In the absence of activating light the lenses return to their clear state. Photochromic lenses may be made of glass, polycarbonate, or another plastic. They are principally used in eyeglasses that are dark in bright sunlight, but clear in low ambient light conditions. They darken significantly within about a minute of exposure to bright light, and take somewhat longer to clear. A range of clear and dark transmittance is available.
In one sort of technology, molecules of silver chloride or another silver halite are embedded in photochromatic lenses. They are transparent to visible light without significant ultraviolet component, which is normal for artificial lighting. In another sort of technology, organic photochromic molecules, when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays as in direct sunlight, undergo a chemical process that causes them to change shape and absorb a significant percentage of the visible light, i.e., they darken. These processes are reversible; once the lens is removed from strong sources of UV rays the photochromic compounds return to their transparent state.
Photochromic lenses were developed by William H. Armistead and Stanley Donald Stookey at the Corning Glass Works Inc. in the 1960’s, and the process was used in the first mass-produced variable tint lenses.