Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.
Material science is a dynamic field with some difficult expectations. You have to constantly be aiming to make the strongest, most durable, and cheapest objects on the planet. Perhaps you are even looking to make a brand new material never seen before. Therefore, it is always a treat to me when I see an old construct become new with just a minor tweak. In this case, we look at one of the oldest materials made by man that is still in use today: glass.
Innovation: Wavelength Selector
Imagine if glass could be used to select a specific wavelength of light and not have any residual ones after your selection. Specially tailored crystals would be used but they could be prohibitively expensive. Enter the Glass Products Division of Container-less Research Inc. and their REAL (Rare Earth Aluminum oxide) glass. It has the ability to not only be that specific wavelength but it can be changed based on the users’ needs without worry of bleed through from the other potential wavelengths. It could also be used in computer communications, has applications for lasers, and can be made on a small scale (Roy).
Yes, floating glass people. Using the Electrostatic Levitator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, scientists mixed glass using six electrostatic generators to levitate the glass while the materials blended. Using a laser, the glass is made molten and allows scientists the ability to measure properties of the glass, which would not otherwise be possible in a container, including a lack of contamination. This means that new compounds of glass could potentially be made (Ibid).
Innovation: Metallic Properties
In the 1950s, scientists discovered the ability to mix metallic compounds into glass. It was not until the early 1990s that the ability to make it en masse was developed. In fact, 1993 saw Dr. Bill Johnson and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology at Caltech found a way to mix five elements that formed metallic glass, which could be made in a bulk fashion. It is the research behind this glass that is remarkable: not only was there much work done here on Earth but also in space. Molten compounds were flown on two separate space shuttle missions to see how they reacted when combined in a microgravity environment. This was to ensure that no contaminants were in the glass. Amongst the uses for this new blend include sports equipment, military gear, medical equipment, and even on the Genesis space probe’s solar particle collector (Ibid).
Normally, materials that are strong are rigid and therefore easy to break. If something is tough then it is easy to bend. Glass definitely fits the strong category while steel would be a tough material. It would be great to have both properties at once and Marios Dementriou from Caltech has done it along with help from Berkley Lab. He and his team created a glass made out of metal (sorry, no transparent aluminum yet for the Star Trek fans out there) that is 2 times as strong as conventional glass and is as tough as steel. The glass required 109 different compounds to make including palladium and silver. It is the latter two which are the key ingredients, for they withstand stress better than traditional glass by making the ability to produce shear bands (areas of stress) easier but makes the formation of cracks difficult. This gives the glass some plastic-like qualities. The material was melted down and the quickly cooled off, causing the atoms to freeze in a random pattern similar to glass. However, unlike normal glass this material will not form traditional shear bands (which form as a result of stress) but instead as an interlocking pattern which seems to reinforce the material (Stanley 14, Yarris).
Innovation: Blast Resistance
Not that we can find much instances where we would want to have to test this out but new glass is being made which can withstand proximity explosions. Normal blast resistant glass is made by using laminated glass with a sheet of plastic in the middle. However, in this new version the plastic is reinforced with glass fibers which are half the thickness of a human hair and distributed in a random pattern. Yes, it will crack but it does not fall apart, depending on the blast. And not only is it blast resistant but it is half an inch thick, meaning less material is needed to make it and thus costs are kept down (LiveScience).
Imagine finding a way to mix the properties of glass with seashells. Who on Earth would ever think to do such a thing? Researchers at the McGill University did. They were able to develop a glass which will not break when drop but will just become bent out of shape. The key was in the hard material of shells known as nacre found in such items as pearls, which are tough and compact. By examining the edges of the nacre, which interweaves to enhance its strength, researchers used lasers to replicate the structure in glass. The durability of the glass was increased by over 200 times, which isn’t something to scoff off (Ruble).
But of course, a different approach to getting flexible glass is possible. You see, glass is normally made up of a phosphorus/silicon mixture that is arranged in a semi-random order, giving it many unique properties but unfortunately one of them is brittleness. Something has to be done to the mixture to help strengthen it and prevent shattering. A team led by Seiji Inaba from the Tokyo Institute of Technology have done just that with their flexible glass. They took the mixture and arranged the phosphorus in long, weakly connected chains so it would mime rubber-like substances. And the applications of such a material are numerous but include bulletproof technology and flexible electronics. However, testing of the material revealed that it is only feasible at temperatures around 220-250 degrees Celsius, so hold off the celebrating for now (Bourzac 12).
Now, how about glass that acts like a battery? Believe it! Scientists at ETH Zurich led by Afyon and Reinhard Nesper have created a material which will boost lithium-ion batteries capacity to store charge. The key was vanadium oxide and lithium-borate composite glass cooked at 900 degrees Celsius and the crushed into a powder once cooled. It was then made into thin sheets with an outer covering of graphite oxide. The vanadium has the advantage of being capable of reaching different oxidation states, meaning it has more ways to lose electrons and thus can act as a better transference of juice. But sadly, in a crystalline state it loses some of its ability to actually deliver on those different states because of the molecular structure growing too big for the charge it carries. But when formed as a glass it actually maximized the ability of the vanadium to store charge as well as transfer it. This is because of the chaotic nature of glass’ structure allowing for expansion of the molecules as charge is collected. The borate just happens to be a material used frequently in glass production while the graphite provides structure and also does not impede electron flow. Lab studies showed that the glass provided a charge nearly 1.5 to 2 times longer than traditional ion batteries (Zurich, Nield).
Bourzac, Katherine. “Rubbery Glass.” Scientific American Mar. 2015: 12. Print
LifeScience Staff. “New Type of Glass Resists Small Explosions.” NBCNews.com. NBCNews 11 Sept. 2009. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
Nield, David. “A New Type of Glass Could Double Your Smartphone’s Battery Life.” Gizmag.com. Gizmag, 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 07 Oct. 2015.
Roy, Steve. “A New Class of Glass.” NASA.gov. NASA, 05 Mar. 2004. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
Ruble, Kimberly. “New Kind of Glass Will Bend but not Break.” Guardianlv.com. Liberty Voice, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 05 Oct. 2015.
Stanley, Sarah. “Strange New Glass Proves Twice as Durable as Steel.” Discover May 2011: 14. Print.
Yarris, Lynn. “New Glass Tops Steel in Strength and Toughness.” Newscenter.ibl.gov. Berkley Lab, 10 Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.
Zurich, Eric. “New Glass Might Double Battery Capacity.” Futurity.com. Futurity 14 Jan. 2015. Web. 07 Oct. 2015.
© 2016 Leonard Kelley