For many years now, the world’s top chemists and engineers have struggled to find the perfect balance between brittleness and strength in glass materials, trying to manufacture a smartphone screen that won’t shatter and won’t scratch as easily. But combining both traits and taking them to the ultimate levels was previously thought impossible due to physical limitations. You can either have one or the other and combining them inevitably comes with compromises.
For glass, this is definitely the case, but what if we used a material that resembles the same transparency while breaking free from the limitations that underpin the material’s strength and hardness properties?
A team of researchers at McGill University was inspired by mollusc shells to create a new composite material made of glass and acrylic. According to their tests and measurements, this new material is 3,000 times tougher than the substances that constitute it thanks to its layered structure which mimics that of the Nacre (aka ‘Mother of Pearl). The scientists used acrylic and glass flakes and layered them together to create something that doesn’t look like a shell from afar but is exactly like one on the microscope.
At the same time, the material is soft enough to avoid breaks and cracks thanks to the soft proteins that are used for layering, which are very elastic. The remaining element was to make the acrylic transparent and to tune its refractive index, blending it perfectly with the glass for a totally transparent result.
The team says the material is neither complex to make nor expensive, so it has all the “real world” market potential they could have hoped for. Their next step is to work on the glass layers and try to make them more fracture-resistant as well as to incorporate smart tech into them. That would bring in new properties like changing conductivity, color, light permeability, and more.