Rice University researchers determined in a new study that a process called chemical vapor deposition, which is used industrially to make thin films, could yield a glass that withstands tremendous stress without breaking.
Wolynes, a senior scientist with the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative, and Wisitsorasak reported their results this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their calculations were based on a modified version of a groundbreaking mathematical model that Wolynes first created to answer a decades-old conundrum about how glass forms. With the modifications, Wolynes’ theory can now predict the ultimate strength of any glass, including the common varieties made from silica and more exotic types made of polymers and metals.
If metal glass sounds odd, blame it on the molecules inside. Glass is unique because of its molecular structure. It freezes into a rigid form when cooled. But unlike ice, in which water molecules take on regular crystalline patterns —think of snowflakes — the molecules in glass are suspended randomly, just as they were as a liquid, with no particular pattern. The strong bonds that form between these randomly-arrayed individual molecules are what hold the glass together and ultimately determine its strength.
All glasses share the ability to handle a great deal of strain before giving way, sometimes explosively. Exactly how much strain a glass can handle is determined by how much energy it can absorb before its intrinsic elastic qualities reach their limitations. And that seems to be as much a property of the way the glass is manufactured as the material it’s made of.