Glass: Classic, But Mysterious

For a large part of human history, people made things from what they could find. Some stones make arrowheads. Others make sparks. Trees can turn into lumber. But the real power is when you can take those same materials and make them into something with very different properties. For example, plant fibers turning into cloth, or rocks giving up the metals inside. One of the oldest engineered materials is glass. You’d think as old as glass is (dating back at least 4,500 years), we’d understand all there is to know about it by now. According to an interesting post by [Jon Cartwright] writing in Physics World, we don’t. Not by a long shot.

According to [Jon] there are at least five “glassy mysteries” that we still don’t understand. Sure, it is easy to just melt sand, soda, and lime — something we’ve talked about before — but, in fact, many materials can turn glassy when cooled quickly from liquid to solid. The problem is, we don’t really understand why that happens.

The point about almost anything can be made glassy is really interesting, too. Did you know that ant colonies and crowds at music festivals behave like glass? Simulated annealing — a computer algorithm for working with difficult optimization problems — is also exploiting the same kind of behavior we see in glass.

Turning metal into glass is hard. You have to cool it very quickly, sometimes on the order of billions of degrees per second. But the payoffs are big. With no grain boundaries, metallic glass doesn’t wear easily and doesn’t easily absorb kinetic energy. For example, a ball bearing hitting a steel plate will bounce a few times, but the plate will quickly absorb the energy in the bearing. A metallic glass plate, however, will absorb much less energy from the bearing. Want to see? Watch the video below.

We’ve talked about how glass is made along with other old engineering materials. If you have a laser cutter, you might even be able to 3D print glass without using insane temperatures (the link on that post is dead, but the videos are still there).

19 thoughts on “Glass: Classic, But Mysterious

  1. Seems like a tuning fork made of that stuff would ring for a very long time. Might make an amazing bell. Maybe it could be made into some kind of resonant circuit retirement? This sure would be fun to play with.

      1. @justsayin said: “* element, dang it, not ‘retirement”

        Is that an automatically introduced typo? If yes, it is really dysfunctional! If you reliably repeat the error, you should submit a bug report.

      1. They meant that it doesn’t act to damp the vibration by converting kinetic energy into heat, aka absorbing the kinetic energy. Instead it returns all the kinetic energy – in the case of a tuning fork it means that when the fork tine bends in storing kinetic energy it then causes the tine to go back the other way with all the initial kinetic energy that went into bending it to begin with.

        1. Indeed, yah beat me to it so i Vote t +1.5 quantised up to 2 ;-)
          This is awesome stuff, I recall when Crown Corning worked on their glass high temp saucepans decades ago (have a few which they marketed with molten aluminium in them) they noticed occasional ‘errors’ at their test labs where variant formulations were trialled, with some materials that offered weird sounds when dropped whilst not breaking with one report suggesting the new material acted a lot like a single state fermion yet was a mass of non crystalline atoms in some superposition – yikes !

          I think the next few years most interesting, seems like we are in for a wild ride with QM the most reliable theory of all time and Still a heck of a lot to explore..

  2. While this is clever and has some intriguing implications for efficient energy storage and release (low heat generation as it flexes/rebounds for instance, or low-loss transformers), fabrication and treatment of a material are likely to be the slow, arduous climb up the slope of enlightenment of actually putting it to use. Interestingly, actual glass makers are seeking to go the other way – to add ductility to that material in order to make it more resistant to damage in everyday use.

  3. Hmm, fascinating metal-glass ball onto steel plate provide all sorts of product improvements & toys, how would it go the same metal-glass ball onto metal-glass plate?
    eg Would the point contact on the mostly nonresiliant plate re stress distribution resistance cause a chip or crack, how about onto a layer of spring steel well affixed to a metal-glass plate underneath ?

    Piston coatings for engines and compressors ?
    What what sorts of magnetic properties could be integrated for electric motors, very high temp curie points perhaps, geesh heaps of applications…

  4. A big deal was made about Apple using that liquidmetal for the SIM card ejector tools that once shipped with their phones. I never quite understood why they’d bother with a special material for that application.

      1. Apparently they’ve maintained a relationship with the Liquidmetal company, and filed some patents together such as a process for making continuous sheet of glassy metal in a method similar to the float glass method. They had an exclusive license to use Liquidmetal in consumer electronics for a while but I don’t know if that was maintained after 2014.

        The use of it for the sim tool may have just been a low stakes exercise in manufacturing something with it. To perhaps be followed by using the material in a product in a more meaningful way.

        The marketing hokum about it was of course marketing hokum.

  5. Quoth TFA:

    “At this rate, a piece of common soda-lime glass would take aeons to slowly flow and turn into the more energetically favourable crystalline sodium dioxide – otherwise known as quartz.”

    Argh. Do they proofread their stuff?

    I mean: shit happens and that. But for a pub naming itself “Physics World”…

    And it isn’t that gaffe alone. TFA’s quality is… mixed.

    1. Ah ha a copy of their sentence, didn’t see the post or glossed over it. Of course, for those not familiar with the materials, Quartz as in towards highest purity is by far Silicon Dioxide as in the sodium likely typo being instead Silicon vs Natrium ;-)
      There’s a nutty auto correct delay on a tablet, even when I wait it seems to wake up just the time touch send air I’m ever more impatient with my tablets bloat.

      Sodium Dioxide can’t form or if it does its for a few femto seconds ie not stable, far more likely is Na2O

      However, disodium monoxide has been found in glass though it’s arguable it’s not found ‘unclustered’ instead in close enough shared bond relationships with silicon as in closely bound to SiO2 to form a more or less stable conglomerate so water and hydrates can’t break it up. By itself Na2O disassociates quickly in the presence of water forming sodium hydroxide…

  6. The video is a bit of a sham, since similar results can be had by using hardened steel instead of the relatively soft stainless. They go up to about half as hard as actual glass, but the difference in such a demo would probably not become visible because most of the energy loss is due to air drag and bouncing randomly against the tube walls.

  7. Its not true that we dont know why materials behave “glass like”, if you refer to transparency then its relates to the amorphous state of the material, since there is no strict order of the atoms the light go through it and doesnt interact with the material .
    this is why you need to cool down fast materials to achieve transparency, to prevent the atoms from arranging in ordered structure

    1. Crystal structure doesn’t determine transparency. Plenty of crystalline solids are transparent to visible & other light. Gems are an easy example. Salt windows are used in a lot of IR instruments, sapphire & diamond windows are used in industry & military. As long as the impedance of the material is favorable & the atomic bonds dont resonate (ie absorb) with that frequency of light you’ll get a transparent material.

    2. Being transparent has nothing to do with ordered or non-ordered structures.

      Diamonds are transparent and highly ordered. Metals, even metal glasses, are not usually transparent – because transparency has to do with free electrons that are able to interact with the photons.

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