With a little help from nature, scientists develop ‘unbreakable glass’

Photo: SciTechDaily Reproduction

Are you one of those people who can break anything glass easily? Whether it’s a cell phone screen, a bowl or even a glass. Well, scientists at McGill University have just developed a type of glass that is at least three times stronger and five times stronger than what we know. The findings were published in the journal Science.

And yes, there are already techniques such as tempering and lamination that help make glass resistant, however, they are expensive and no longer work when the surface is damaged.

Allen Ehrlicher, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Bioengineering told SciTechDaily that nature is a master of design. It was by studying the structure of biological materials and understanding how they work that they got inspiration, and more than that, projects for new materials.

That’s how the team picked up the architecture of nacre – a compound produced by some molluscs as an inner shell layer -. and replicated it with layers of glass and acrylic flakes, resulting in an exceptionally strong but opaque material that can be produced easily and inexpensively.

A) Glass composite microstructure and (B) Nacar microstructure. Credit: Allen Ehrlicher

“Nacre is made of rigid pieces of chalk-like matter that are covered by soft proteins that are highly elastic. This structure produces exceptional strength, making it 3,000 times stronger than its component materials,” explained Ehrlicher.

After that, the challenge became another. Researchers needed to make this compound transparent. According to Ali Amini, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at McGill, by adjusting the refractive index of acrylic, the team blended it perfectly together with the glass to make a truly transparent composite.

glass in history

According to popular historical accounts by Roman authors Gaius Plinius Secundus and Petronius, flexible glass is supposedly a lost invention since the reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. The story goes that the inventor took a bowl made of the material to the emperor, who, when he tried to break it, just crumpled rather than shattered.

According to reports, after the inventor swore he was the only person who knew how to produce the material, Tiberius had the man executed, fearing that glass would devalue gold and silver because it might be more valuable.

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Ehrlicher said that when he thinks of Tiberius’ story, he’s happy that our material innovation leads to publication rather than execution. The team plans to improve the invention by incorporating smart technology, allowing the glass to change its properties such as color, mechanics and conductivity.