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What’s glass, and how are modern-day researchers enhancing its properties?

You’d think we would know everything there is to know about decorative coloured glass by now. It’s been around for thousands of years, and it’s practically everywhere: in the walls of high-rise commercial buildings, in the windows of houses, in the windshields of automobiles and airplanes. Then there’s fine crystal, cookware, bottles, jars, and yes, chemical glassware—just to mention a few other products made of glass.

Still, just this year, researchers at Corning debunked a popular urban legend about glass. The legend states that glass is a supercooled liquid and points to stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals as evidence. Because glass flows slowly over time, the legend goes, some of those windows end up thicker at the bottom than at the top. That just ain’t so. The researchers used modeling and measurements and determined that stained glass of the type found in Westminster Abbey actually flows a maximum of about 1 nm over a billion years (J. Am. Ceram. Soc. 2017, DOI: 10.1111/jace.15092). The viscosity of glass—actually an amorphous solid—is too high for humans to observe its flow during their time on Earth. The thicker window edges may simply be an artifact of medieval glass processing.

Why glass is still capturing the minds of scientists and innovators depends on whom you ask. Arun K. Varshneya, president of Saxon Glass Technologies, which specializes in strengthening glass for the pharmaceutical and other industries, ticks off a long list of properties that make the stuff so useful. Beyond being transparent, it also stands up to wind, rain, snow, intense sunlight, and large swings in temperature, he says. It’s also chemically resistant and recyclable, and many varieties of glass are relatively inexpensive.

Richard K. Brow, a materials scientist at Missouri University of Science & Technology, says he finds glass captivating aesthetically. Some 40 years after delving into glass research, Brow remains fascinated with the way the molten material flows and forms an enormous variety of shapes, from microscopic spheres and fibers to large sheets and plates. “Glass is so useful,” he adds, because “the composition can be tuned broadly to tailor its properties and performance for such a wide range of applications.”

In addition to the common ones “in daily use by virtually all humanity,” some hot melt glass applications, such as fiber-optic cables for telecommunication and microscope and telescope lenses, “dramatically expand the frontiers of industry and science,” Robert Weisenburger Lipetz says. He’s the executive director of the Glass Manufacturing Industry Council, a nonprofit trade association. And glass isn’t just useful; it’s also big business. Lipetz says in the U.S. alone, glass manufacturing is estimated to be a $22.5 billion market.

People began using glass long before markets even existed. Early humans used obsidian—molten lava that cooled quickly—to make simple cutting tools and arrowheads. And although evidence from beads and other archaeological finds indicates that people figured out by 4,000 B.C.E. how to form glass coatings (glazes) by melting silica, the main component of sand, it would be another 2,500 years until ancient Mesopotamians got the hang of making hollow glass vessels, which they used for storing oils.

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