Unbreakable Glass Inspired by Sea Shells

Nature is a master designer!


Study, Innovation
Mother of Pearl shells.

(Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock.com)

Say goodbye to the days of broken phone screens. Now, scientists may have discovered the secrets to unbreakable glass, and it’s inspired by nature!
This discovery was inspired  by researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Canada who observed the incredible strength of the inner layer of mollusk shells. They studied the biological makeup of the shells and created the blueprint for a stronger-than-ever glass based on nacre. This remarkable study was published in the journal Science.

What’s nacre?
Nacre, commonly known as mother of pearl, is an iridescent “organic–inorganic material” found in the inner shell of some molluscs, according to an overview in Science Direct. Nacre consists of stiff pieces of chalk-like material layered with highly elastic soft proteins.

The material has high rigidity and toughness making it extremely durable. At the same time, layers of proteins make it elastic, like a flexible glass. As a result, nacre is 3,000 times tougher than its individual materials. 

About the research
The scientists experimented with ways of reinforcing glass to make it stronger, using techniques like tempering or laminating. However, these efforts didn’t prove cost-effective and often diminished the quality of the glass, like toughness or transparency, according to a press release from McGill University

But after being  inspired by the mother of pearl, the team of scientists replicated the qualities of the sea shells by layering glass flakes and acrylic. At first, the material resembled the pearlescent, opaque appearance of the shell material. 

Then, the team experimented with the mechanics, color, and conductivity to achieve the results needed for a versatile, unbreakable glass. This included tuning the refractive index of the acrylic to make it more transparent. 

“Until now there were trade-offs between high strength, toughness, and transparency, “Allen Ehrlicher, an Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at McGill University told ScitechDaily.

The new glass
The new glass is three times stronger than conventional glass and  more than five times more fracture-resistant,according to Erlich. It resembles the durability of plastic and doesn’t shatter upon impact. At the same time, the exceptionally strong, see-through material blend can be produced easily and inexpensively.

Although the material will take time to go to market, this new type of glass shows great promise for the future. The shell-inspired glass and acrylic composite has many use cases to improve the durability of products. If mass-produced, this could finally end the days of broken cell phone screens for good! 

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