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Super-tough glass based on mollusk shells


January 29, 2014

The same structure that gives seashells their strength has been replicated in glass 
(Photo: Shutterstock)

The same structure that gives seashells their strength has been replicated in glass (Photo: Shutterstock)

In the future, if you drop a glass on the floor and it doesn't break, thank a mollusk. Inspired by shellfish, scientists at Montreal's McGill University have devised a new process that drastically increases the toughness of glass. When dropped, items made using the technology would be more likely to deform than to shatter.

If you look at the inside surface of the shell of a mollusk such as an abalone, mussel or oyster, you'll see a shiny iridescent material. This is called nacre (also known as mother-of-pearl), and it's what gives the shell its strength – the outer surface of the shell is made almost entirely of calcium carbonate, and would be very brittle on its own.

A team led by Prof. François Barthelat studied the internal structure of nacre, which is comprised of individual microscopic "tablets" that interlock in a fashion similar to Lego blocks. The researchers noticed that the boundaries between the tablets aren't straight but instead are wavy, like the edges of jigsaw puzzle pieces.

The scientists replicated these boundaries in glass microscope slides, using lasers to engrave networks of wavy 3D "micro-cracks" within them. When the slides were subjected to an impact, the micro-cracks absorbed and dispersed the energy, keeping the glass from shattering. Altogether, the treated slides were reportedly 200 times tougher than slides which were not treated.

Barthelat believes that it would be relatively simple to scale the process up to larger sheets of glass, and is also planning on applying it to other brittle materials such as ceramics and polymers. A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: McGill University

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

My guess is the surface will appear as a matte finish, can't be transparent, at best translucent. Still brilliant in that you got to smack your head and wonder "Why did'nt I or someone else think of this long ago ?" You stretch out a piece of glass rod in a torch you get a glass fiber , yeah Fiber Glass, tough to shatter ain't it.

Dave B13

So if I were to drop a glass made with this process onto a floor that has tiles made with this process, maybe nothing would break/chip? My wife refers to our kitchen as having the "floor of death."

Bruce H. Anderson

I wonder what the weight of this stuff is? And then I wonder if it could be infused with other products to add superior strength, while reducing weight? Sounds like there may be some endless possibilities...

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