Mollusk shells inspire glass that bends but doesn't break

mollusk shell
CC BY-NC 2.0 benloudman

The durability of our electronics and gadgets is an important issue. Ever since we read that Americans had spent over $6 billion on broken iPhones (and that was back in 2012), we've had our eye out for innovations that could lead to stronger gadgets and less e-waste.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have developed a new ultra-tough glass that would only bend or dent from the impact of a fall instead of shattering and what's even better is that the material was inspired by nature, specifically the ultra strong shells of mollusks.

“Mollusk shells are made up of about 95 per cent chalk, which is very brittle in its pure form,” says Prof. François Barthelat of McGill University. “But nacre, or mother-of-pearl, which coats the inner shells, is made up of microscopic tablets that are a bit like miniature Lego building blocks, is known to be extremely strong and tough, which is why people have been studying its structure for the past twenty years.”

Researchers had attempted to build a material to mimic the shells by starting at that microscopic building block level, but without success. This time, the McGill team started with solid glass slides and then engraved networks of 3D micro-cracks in shapes like a jigsaw puzzle to create the internal weak networks of the shell materials and it worked. The engraved slides were 200 times tougher than the non-engraved slides. The network of micro-cracks gave the glass some flexibility and kept larger cracks from spreading or deepening.

The researchers say that the process could easily be scaled up to glass sheets and could be used on ceramics and polymers too. Future smartphones and tablets could be outfitted with this shatter-proof glass, making our gadgets stronger and longer-lasting.

Mollusk shells inspire glass that bends but doesn't break
The strength of mollusk shells has led to the development of a new glass that is tougher and less brittle, meaning less fragile iPhone screens could be on their way.

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