When Thomas Edison turned to Corning in 1879 to make supplies for his incandescent lamp, the company’s knowledge of specialty glass was the key to the invention’s later success. Edison first requested that Corning duplicate lime-glass tubing samples from his lab. Corning chemists knew the lime glass couldn’t handle the rigors of heat from the internal electric current, and responded with this blunt reply: “We cannot fill your order for we only make lead glass. It is tough and elastic and could be drawn to any distinctions if it would answer your purpose.” The next year, the inventor began ordering durable lead-glass tubing and hand-blown lead-glass bulbs from Corning, the start of a technological revolution that changed the world.
Borosilicate glass, the specialty material used to make Corning’s iconic PYREX labware, gets its name from the use of boric oxide added to a composition of silica and other elements. It works well for labware because of its very low thermal expansion coefficient. In other words, its rate of expansion under heat is about one-third that of ordinary soda-lime glass.
Experiments to strengthen glass began in Corning labs in the 1930s. Much of the research focused on surface treatments like films or acid “frosting.” It wasn’t until the 1960s that chemically strengthened glass — and an ion-exchange process that would later be used in Corning Gorilla Glass — began to toughen glass from the inside out.
James R. Houghton — Corning’s former chairman and descendant of founder Amory Houghton, Sr. — often spoke of how scientific research defined the company’s character. “We were convinced that science and technology were the keys to success, and that Corning should be a specialty glass company,” he said in a 1990 speech. “This meant that constant change, driven by innovation from our technological core, would be a way of life.”
Developing the thin sheets of specialty glass that enable today’s lightweight LCD televisions presented significant challenges . The glass must be alkali-free so it doesn’t interact chemically or electronically with thin-film transistors that generate colorful images. Corning’s development of an alkali-free composition that could also be formed by fusion draw helped establish it as the world-leading supplier of LCD glass.
Specialty glass innovators like Corning invest tremendous energy into the study of glass stability. Since glass is now used in heat-intensive applications — particularly in industries like consumer electronics — it’s essential that glass substrates don’t change dimensions in the manufacturing process. That’s one of the key attributes of innovations like Corning Lotus™ Glass, which helps enable some of today’s cutting edge displays.
Nanostructured materials — which can measure as small as a single micron — offer great potential for the continued development of specialty glass, particularly in the areas of reactive glass surfaces, sensors, and optical fiber.