Materials

Seashell-inspired glass promises shatterproof smartphone screens

Seashell-inspired glass promis...
Engineers have developed a tough new glass composite inspired by nacre, the shiny material inside mollusk shells
Engineers have developed a tough new glass composite inspired by nacre, the shiny material inside mollusk shells
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Engineers have developed a tough new glass composite inspired by nacre, the shiny material inside mollusk shells
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Engineers have developed a tough new glass composite inspired by nacre, the shiny material inside mollusk shells
Microscopic images of the new glass composite's microstructure (left) and natural nacre (right)
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Microscopic images of the new glass composite's microstructure (left) and natural nacre (right)
A) Two samples of the glass/acrylic composite, one where the acrylic hasn't had its refractive index matched to glass (left) compared to a sample that has been index-matched (right). B) Microstructure of the glass composite. C) A red abalone shell, with nacre visible. D) The microstructure of the natural nacre.
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A) Two samples of the glass/acrylic composite, one where the acrylic hasn't had its refractive index matched to glass (left) compared to a sample that has been index-matched (right). B) Microstructure of the glass composite. C) A red abalone shell, with nacre visible. D) The microstructure of the natural nacre.
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Glass is one of the most useful materials in our modern world, but being prone to cracking or shattering is a major downside. Scientists at McGill University have developed a new type of glass inspired by the mollusk shell that’s stronger and tougher, while retaining good transparency.

That inner, iridescent layer of a mollusk shell is actually the secret to its strength. Known as nacre or mother-of-pearl, the material’s microscopic structure resembles brickwork, with platelets of a stiff calcium carbonate interspersed with soft, elastic biopolymers. This structure not only improves strength but stops cracks from propagating.

In previous work the McGill researchers mimicked nacre by etching microscopic cracks into glass using lasers, and while that worked to improve strength and toughness, it reduced transparency. For the new study, the team replicated the structure using a composite of glass flakes and acrylic, which act like the stiff platelets and soft elastic, respectively.

Microscopic images of the new glass composite's microstructure (left) and natural nacre (right)
Microscopic images of the new glass composite's microstructure (left) and natural nacre (right)

To make sure the material remains transparent, the researchers tuned the refractive index of the acrylic so that it matched that of the glass. The end result is a material that’s much stronger and tougher than regular glass, but still transparent.

“Until now there were trade-offs between high strength, toughness, and transparency,” says Allen Ehrlicher, corresponding author of the study. “Our new material is not only three times stronger than the normal glass, but also more than five times more fracture resistant.”

The team says that the method should be scalable, and the resulting material could be useful for making stronger displays for smartphones and other devices. In future work the researchers plan to investigate ways to change the color, conductivity and other properties of the material.

The research was published in the journal Science.

Source: McGill University

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3 comments
3 comments
TechGazer
The outer layer of glazing might not crack, but the delicate structure beneath is still vulnerable. An uncracked screen with dead pixels isn't much good.
Nelson Hyde Chick
But wouldn't this cut into Apple's profits?
christopher
That's not how capitalism works. Screens *need* to break. Batteries *need* to deplete and be irreplaceable. etc