Glass: The Quintessential Nanotech Material: Glass Nanotechnology | Science of Glass | The Glass Age | Corning

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Workers in protective suits clamp, pour crucible of molten glass

Science of Glass

Science of Glass

Glass: The Quintessential Nanotech Material

Glass: The Quintessential Nanotech Material

Long before physicist Richard Feynman launched the nanotechnology era with his 1959 assertion, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom,” people were manipulating glass at the nano level – often without realizing it.

For thousands of years, artists have worked with glass because of how it forms, feels, and handles light, while craftsmen have used glass for practical applications because of its stability, impermeability, and transparency.  In the last century, scientists have made extraordinary advances in the characterization and fabrication of glass, leading to innovative applications in diverse fields such as architecture, transportation, electronics, communications, and medicine.

How can one material do so much?

At its core, glass is quite simple. The primary building block of glass is silica in the form of sand.  But silica is an extremely gracious collaborator with its friends on the Periodic Table. In fact, an overview of glass research reveals that scientists have added more than 50 different elements to silica to create glass compositions with unique attributes.

But composition is just the beginning.  Scientists also use a broad range of techniques such as irradiation, surface modification, and precise temperature control to develop specialized glasses with different colors, form factors, strengths, degrees of flexibility, and light-handling abilities.

By fine-tuning the formulation and fabrication of glass, scientists can unleash a nearly limitless stream of new capabilities. This tremendous versatility has prompted scientist David Pye of Alfred University to describe glass as “the quintessential nanotech material.”

Lycurgus Cup

Nanotechnology, albeit unknowingly, has played a central role in crafting beautiful colored artistic works such as the Lycurgus Cup, created in Italy in the 4th Century. The glass chalice appears jade green when lit from the front but blood-red when lit from behind. The phenomenon, which puzzled scientists for centuries, results from particles of silver and gold that Roman artisans ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometers in diameter-- less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt.

©The Trustees British Museum

Optical Technology

Controlling optical properties is classic glass science at the nano-scale level. Small differences in spacing and bonding between elements result in varying degrees of light absorption, transmission, reflection and scattering. The ability to fine-tune these attributes has made glass vital to technologies such as optical filters, fluorescent solids, and lasing systems.

Photochromic Glasses

Ever wonder what makes some eye glasses turn dark in sunlight and clear indoors? The answer lies on the nano-scale. Photochromic lenses contain nano-sized silver halide crystals, whose electrical properties have been modified by the addition of copper. When exposed to light, tiny specks of metallic silver within the crystals absorb the rays, turning the glass dark. However, once the light source is removed, the glass will return to its original colorless state.