How to make glass out of thin air
Corning engineers can make glass sheets as large as two king-size mattresses and as thin as a business card. Corporate Fellow Shawn Markham explains that it’s not a trick. It’s the science of fusion.
Corning’s Shawn Markham has dedicated her career to making glass out of thin air. Today, she’s a leading expert on fusion, a process invented by Corning that creates large, pristine, flat glass – enabling products like huge display screens and durable, protective covers for smartphones.
Corning’s prized invention, the fusion machine, melts raw materials – sand and so much more, painstakingly calculated and concocted – until molten. The lava-like substance pours powerfully into a specially designed trough. When the substance overflows its trough, science seemingly turns to magic. The world’s most pristine, thin glass sheets form, harnessing gravity as the enormous substrates cascade to the ground. Robots collect the sheets and usher them toward infinite possibilities.
That’s fusion. Physics in action. It’s taking the most basic elements and properties on Earth and turning them into a potentially infinite variety of complex, sophisticated products.
“Physics principles govern what we do every day,” said Shawn, who was recently named a Corporate Fellow – a title bestowed upon Corning’s most experienced and respected experts in their fields. For Shawn, the universality of fusion keeps her enthralled and innovating as she continues the legacy of the process’s pioneering engineers.
“The physics of fusion remain the same, regardless of glass type and product application,” she said. “The operational temperatures for different glasses impact the degree of difficulty. The size and thinness of the product can add complexity. But radiation, convection, and the earth’s gravity remain the same every day, in every country. Our ability to understand this and model glass behavior is key to our ability to produce the same level of glass and control the process in the same way, every day, all around the world.
Shawn learned fusion from years of on-the-job training, mentorship, and Corning’s rich culture of innovation. Physics is the foundation college graduates need to start a career in fusion – a process so proprietary it’s not taught at universities. Those who join Corning can follow Shawn’s journey.
It takes years of on-the-job training – learning by doing – for an engineer to become an expert. That’s due in large part to Corning’s culture of innovation, an aspect Shawn says has been key to fusion success.
One of Shawn’s first projects at Corning was a glass called “7059,” the very first display glass for liquid crystal displays. 7059 afforded the budding fusion team with lessons needed to move toward the complex compositions we know today.
With each trial composition, engineers like Shawn learned how to better calibrate the fusion machine. Materials scientists worked alongside them, perfecting their glass recipes, optimizing for fusion and a variety of outcomes.
The agility and speed of fusion innovation advances glass by leaps, and it’s what keeps Shawn energized for the future.
“We’ve come a long way from the early days, but we’re not done,” Shawn said. “With every new display technology comes a new opportunity for fusion to show us what it can do. The next generation of engineers and materials scientists we have here are ready to push the physics even further.”
It all leads to Corning glass that’s bigger, thinner, and more vital to the world’s progress than fusion’s inventors could have imagined.